From the anxious opening bank heist to the final, meditative stand-off, David Mackenzie’s critically-acclaimed “Hell or High Water” contains a slow-burning sense of desperation and abandonment in West Texas that’s effectively captured in Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography.
“There is no moral salvation,” Nuttgens told IndieWire. “It was about setting up a rhythm that was very slow that matched the rhythm of the environment that they were in. And it was the slowness of these sleepy towns that allowed these brothers [played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster] to get away with robbing four or five banks in one week.”
Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Foster) are forced to go on a bank-robbing spree to save the family farm, pursued by two Texas Rangers, the cantankerous Marcus (Jeff Bridges), who’s nearing retirement, and the younger, less free-wheeling Alberto (Gil Birmingham).
“Hell or High Water” (shot with the Arri Alexa XT and Angenieux Optimo and Optimo 2S anamorphic lenses) brilliantly alternates between hot, sprawling, landscapes and dark, claustrophobic interiors. Although there’s a timeless quality to the economic malaise, the Scottish Mackenzie and Nuttgens also achieve a ’70s vibe inspired by “The Last Picture Show” and “Badlands.”
Appropriately enough, when scouting locations in West Texas to match in New Mexico, where the film was shot, they began with “The Last Picture Show’s” Archer City. The cinematographer suggested it was especially evocative for Bridges, who starred in the Peter Bogdanovich classic.
“It was a massive deal about the state of your mind about the possibilities of not having a future,” Nuttgens said. “And those things drive you into extreme action. For these characters, they’re driven to the edge because they don’t want to see another generation living through that poverty.”
For the bravura opening, the sense of abandonment becomes immediately palpable. “The town’s been left behind, so we designed a single shot that would follow our car, lose our car, find the bank employee and you have a sense that something’s not quite right,” Nuttgens said.
“The only way to do that was to keep a shot longer than it could hold and finding something that was almost so banal that you had to wait long enough for what the visual interest would be. And then, of course, there’s violence that hits in the end.”
Inside the bank, meanwhile, they played it in real-time (a single shot with a Steadicam broken up by two cuts) to attain greater veracity, emphasizing Toby’s nervousness and Tanner’s hot temper.
“The beauty of David’s filmmaking is that there are specific points of characterization that we needed to set up early so people understand who these people are,” Nuttgens said.
There’s always tension between the two pairs, but it’s contrasted by the off-color humor between the Texas Rangers. “We wanted to have style that maybe belonged to a different period, but we wanted to make sure this could happen today and it could happen to anyone,” Nuttgens said. “And everything we did visually was completely linked to the rhythms or the events that were happening in the narrative.”