I didn’t fully recognize the remarkably pervasive anti-gun statement embedded in the well received film Hell or High Water until my morning jog the following day. The message is so subtle, so nuanced, and so expertly executed, this movie could be used as a textbook case for how narrative filmmaking can promote policy positions. And it could well be an Oscar winner.
Hell or Highwater chronicles Toby and his ex-convict brother as they rob unsophisticated backwater banks in small West Texas towns. Their goal is to steal just enough money to pay off the mortgage on the family farm and Toby’s unpaid child support. The movie has been billed as a modern-day Western.
The anti-gun message is masterfully layered into the story through a parallel structure that builds tension throughout the film, peaking at about the same time as the movie’s climactic scene. Here’s a six point guide to how the anti-gun message is built into Hell or High Water’s story:
- Guns As Tools. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film is the way Hell or Highwater’s writers and directors have co-opted one of the most important messages of the pro-second amendment movement—guns are tools, so don’t ban the tool; focus on the bad people that use them inappropriately. This is exactly what the director and screenwriters do, turning the pro-gun rights argument on its head. The opening scenes show that Toby, the more thoughtful, reflective, and financially desperate brother is uncomfortable with violence, the robberies, and, most importantly, the use of guns. His hot-headed brother, Tanner, has no problem using violence to intimidate his victims. In the first robberies, no shots are fired by the robbers because they use the visual presence of their guns to bully the tellers and bank managers into submission. Their guns are tools to achieve an end. Toby doesn’t use his gun effectively, but Tanner uses it tactically, and it feeds his aggression. Underlying Messages: Guns are tools that can be used for good or bad, bad guy are more effective than the good guys in using them, and guns fuel aggression and violence.
- Citizen Gun Owners. On multiple occasions private citizens attempt to thwart the robberies using their guns. Early in the story, Tanner actually asks a bank customer if he is “carrying,” letting the audience know that Texas is a state where citizens are allowed to be armed in public. (See point 6 below on the misleading nature of this plot point.) The citizen acknowledges he is, and, Toby, the passive younger brother, disarms him. Toby, however, absent mindedly places the gun close enough for the citizen to retrieve it. The citizen pursues the robbers as they exit the bank, shooting out windows in an unsuccessful but destructive attempt to stop the robbers. In the final robbery, the duo enters a larger bank branch and orders the customers to lay on the floor while Tanner empties the cash drawers. Meanwhile the bank’s hidden but armed private security guard pulls his gun in an attempt to stop the robbery. He fires, but misses, and is shot and killed by Tanner. A customer who is carrying his own gun takes advantage of the chaos and draws his weapon. Tanner shoots and kills the customer at point blank range as mild mannered Toby looks on, shaken by the violence. Underlying Message: private citizens are incompetent in using their guns, getting themselves killed.
- Professional Law Enforcement. The Texas Rangers pursuing the robbers don’t pull their weapons until the climactic scene and shoot sparingly. Both rangers are cool and professional, even though the interpersonal conflict between the two characters is transparent from the earliest scenes and builds. Rather than resort to violence between themselves, these professionals diffuse their conflict by removing themselves from its source (their partner) by leaving the room or refusing to engage in discussion. In the film’s climactic scene, as private citizens and the rangers are pinned down from sniper fire in the desert hills, the professionals don’t shoot haphazardly. Only the death of one of the partners by the sniper drives the other ranger to grab a rifle with a scope, outflank the sniper, and kill him with one shot. Underlying Lessons: Trained professionals know how to handle guns, use them as a last resort, and don’t use them unless it is justified.
- Gun Violence Escalation. Guns begin in the story as a tool, largely neutral in their impact on the motivations and behavior of the Toby and Tanner (Point #1 above). The brothers become increasingly dangerous as the violence escalates with each bank robbery, in parallel with the resolve and desperation of the key characters. Tanner, we find, enjoys the rush that comes with their outlaw activities and becomes increasingly (although not psychopathically) violent. Indeed, the increasingly violent use of guns highlights Tanner’s more focused utilitarian approach to the robberies and desire to ensure Toby has the money he needs to save the family farm. He is even heroic—sacrificing himself to give his brother a chance to avoid capture and complete their mission. Tanner’s descent into violence is accelerated through his confrontations with citizen gun owners. Underlying Message: Guns become more effective and more dangerous the more determined and committed the criminal becomes.
- Directorial Sleight Of Hand 1: Assault Weapons. Anticipating more resistance to their robberies, older brother Tanner adds an assault-rifle style weapon to his arsenal of handguns and smaller weapons. We see him loading ammunition into magazines capable of housing dozens of rounds. He tapes them together so that they are easy to replace in a real firefight. Toward the end of the movie, the two brothers are pursued by a posse of armed private citizens in several pick-up trucks. Tanner stops the car and unloads scores of rounds at their pursuers, blowing out windshields, punching holes into the sides and frames of vehicles, and forcing the poorly matched citizen posse to scramble for cover and retreat. The shots are fired using an automatic assault gun, which is illegal. Most moviegoers wouldn’t know this, and no dialogue is used to object to the increased fire power that goes with an automatic weapon. While this creates dramatic effect, it also leaves the impression that any rifle capable of firing multiple rounds ends up becoming a machine gun capable of overwhelming any attempt to stop criminals or other “evil doers”. Underlying Lesson: All rifles can become machine guns that can kill.
- Directorial Sleight of Hand 2: Gun Laws. Texas is an open carry state, which means guns do not have to be concealed when citizens carry them. All the guns held and used by non-law enforcement in Hell or High Water are concealed except for the private security guard, who is hidden from the sight of the robbers. On the surface, this may be just creative license since it appears to serve the purpose of the story—after all, who would rob a bank when their victim is actually armed? And that’s the point. A citizen openly carrying inside a bank would change the dynamic of the scene. However, given the way in which robberies in the film are planned and executed, customers and employees are taken by surprise. So, in fact, the story could have been changed so that victims could be disarmed because they would be highly unlikely to pull their gun when one is already pointed at their head. Underlying Message: Concealed weapons are ineffective for self defense.
Hell or High Water is a very well crafted movie, and I was actively engaged throughout. While I haven’t found any written or reported evidence that the directors and screenwriters intended to write an anti-gun, or pro-gun control movie, their final product carries a very strong anti-gun message. Given the prominence of guns in the film, and the intentional marketing strategy casting it as a contemporary western, the film is not just anti-violence. It intimately integrates gun violence into the story and is critical to the character arcs of the lead characters. Hell or High Water is a textbook case for how political messages can be and often are embedded in a well-crafted narrative film.
For readers interested in more on gun rights in film, I have explored this issue in a previous blog post on Free State of Jones. (In this movie, gun rights are supported, albeit unintentionally, by the narrative.)