Last week Hell or High Water received a limited release in the United States to almost universal acclaim, receiving a 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In a summer filled with blockbusters that fell short, Hell or High Water allowed audiences to go home having seen a smart and exciting film. All four of the leads give magnificent performances (that includes Gil Birmingham, whose name has gone below the radar during much of the film's coverage), the directing is outstanding, and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has repeated his thrilling performance from Sicario. But likely the most underrated aspect of the film is Giles Nuttgens's awe-inspiring cinematography.
Hell or High Water is a film that spends its time split between two primary setups. Tight, often claustrophobic-feeling spaces, in places like banks, diners, and crumbling homes, or in epically large landscapes, like the flat open roads, or sprawling mountainsides of West Texas.
When exploring the smaller spaces, Nuttgens takes on numerous different angles to frame our lead characters. He always makes sure to fill the screen with people, allowing them to feel large and important. The interior scenes tended to be focused on intimate character moments or progression of the plot, and the film benefits from the cinematography providing us a glimpse at all of the characters involved. These tight shots are crafted to pull our vision towards what we need to see, and the dulled color scheme of the numerous indoor locations only stands to emphasize the glory of the grander shots.
While there are some fantastic close-quarters shots, such as the one above and the one in the headline, where Nuttgens really makes his impact is with his shots of sweeping plains and epic landscapes. The exterior shots prove to compliment the intimateness of the interior shots by letting us become engrossed in the larger picture, both literally and figuratively. The views of West Texas are bleak, yet still compelling beautiful, and it's hard to pull your eyes away from the great expanses.
Fortunately, the film is filled with plenty of shots like the one above. The characters spend lengthy periods of time outdoors, and when Nuttgens transitions into these wide shots of the West Texas countryside they provide the perfect opportunity to examine the ideas being presented in the film, and to marvel at how small we are in this world. The characters are given much more space to breathe when we see them outside, allowing audiences to really take in this world and to understand the messages being dictated by the movie.
The film also features several lengthy shots, including a phenomenal tracking shot to open up the film. That initial tracking shot, which you'll have to go to theaters to see, immediately sucks the viewer into the story and shows us the type of world we're getting into, a desolate, dirty, multi-dimensional place that leaves you wanting more. But while you want the shot to continue, the imagery is already showing you that seeing more might only prove to make things more morally complex than you want them to be. One shot and sixty seconds into the movie and Nuttgens has already found a way to give you multiple perspectives and a feast for your eyes.
While the director, writer, and actors all put forth fabulous performances, it's the cinematography that really ties everything together. The shots in this article are only a small sampling of what the movie has to provide, and if you're looking for something where the camera really serves to place you within the film and to make you think, then Hell or High Water is the movie for you.
In case you're still not sold on the movie, here's the trailer. Check it out for yourself to see why critics are raving about the film:
Check out the video below to see how the gunmen in Hell or High Water compare to these other pistol-wielding badasses:
If you've seen Hell or High Water, what did you think of the camerawork? What are some other movies where you were blown away by the cinematography? Let us know in the comments!