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Hell or High Water writer explains the film's ambiguous ending

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In the lead-up to this year’s Academy Awards on Feb. 26, EW is taking a closer look at some of the screenplays honored in the original and adapted categories. The nominated writers will break down select pages that were essential to the stories they were telling.

When Taylor Sheridan set out to write a modern-day Western, he knew that it would end in a shootout — white hat versus black hat — but that’s not necessarily what he wanted. That had been done before, and he wasn’t eager to see the cliché play out again.

As Sheridan wrote, the showdown between the bank-robbing Toby (Chris Pine) and the retired marshall chasing him, Marcus (Jeff Bridges), began to change into something more surprising and emotional.

Here the Oscar-nominated writer shares his thought process for Hell or High Water‘s uncertain end.

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I’m a real stream-of-consciousness writer. I knew the characters so well by this point that I just wrote. It made sense that they would say this and that this would be the way the character would react. They’re playing a chess match, both of them. They’re boxers circling each other in the ring, and the punches they throw are with honesty.

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Marcus deserves to know why. This was a way to tell him without confessing, yet it’s still a confession of a sense. Obviously, Marcus has a tremendous responsibility for having failed his partner and also for the way he treated his partner. He never got an opportunity to apologize for that and to tell him that he was his only friend. Marcus is suffering a tremendous amount of guilt as well.

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When violence takes place in my films, I want there to be real consequences for it. I want to watch the suffering beyond the act. When Marcus talks about his partner having a family, it’s the consequences of actions reverberating through generations. How much Alberto’s death affected his children and their children? Toby’s actions were foolish, but they were also selfless as well. The consequences to his actions are that another family will suffer now, even though it wasn’t his intention. They will, so that his doesn’t.

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I love the fact that we find ourselves in a situation where what should be a shootout is a series of monologues, really examining purpose and motivation and understand and to be understood. It’s just how it unfolded as I wrote.

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The line that probably saved Toby’s life in the moment is when Marcus says, “You don’t live here anymore,” and he says, “No, it’s theirs.” The family does the math on their faces. They all know. He says, “The things you do for your kids, huh?” He recognizes that Toby did none of this for himself. That doesn’t make it any less selfish in its own strange way, but he literally did none of this for himself.

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What would have happened if his family had not come home? In my mind, that’s exactly how a modern-day Western ends — the kids come home from school and you don’t get the stand off. We’re robbed of that moment, and the audience is left to guess what the heck Toby and Marcus are talking about at the very end.

Skipping ahead to very end…

I just thought that for either one of them to die was letting them off easy. There was a certain amount of suffering that they both deserved to endure. I love a movie that when I sees it makes me come up with a story beyond the film. I love imagining what might have happened. I don’t think it’s my right to tell you what I think, because it could alter what you think. That cheapens the process a bit…. That’s a long way of saying that I ain’t answering that.

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