As the setting for 'Nocturnal Animals' and 'Hell or High Water,' West Texas signals danger and despair

This isn’t hell —  it’s West Texas.

 That, at least, seems to be the message of a couple of current films and several older movies either shot, or set, in the area.

In the Golden Globe-nominated “Hell or High Water,” West Texas, with its bleak, flat landscapes and small towns featuring depressed main streets filled with vacant storefronts, is a potent symbol of economic decline and cultural stagnation. And in this month’s “Nocturnal Animals,” West Texas is a place where a family on a road trip can be run off a deserted highway by a trio of rednecks who first terrorize them then kidnap the wife and daughter.

These pictures are “definitely playing into stereotypes that exist,” says Charlie Scudder, who writes about Texas culture for the Dallas Morning News. “The people are stereotypically portrayed. People who live out there are hard, tough, sometimes get the bad end of the stick. And playing into it are larger Texas stereotypes like wildness and lawlessness.”

“There is a harsh beauty” to the area, adds West Texas native and “Hell or High Water” screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. “Working out there is a hard way to make a living, and anytime you get into an isolated place, the haves and have nots are much clearer. There is a certain amount of extremism in the country that allows you to highlight it.”

The list of films that have taken these concepts and run with them can be traced at least as far back as 1956’s “Giant,” with its contrast between wealthy rancher Rock Hudson and wildcat oilman James Dean. In “Hud” (1963), Paul Newman and his rancher father, Melvyn Douglas, fight over whether they should hide an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease among their cattle. “Lone Star” (1996) features Chris Cooper as a sheriff in a Texas border town trying to solve a decades-old murder. In “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2005), West Texas ranch hand Tommy Lee Jones tries to bury his deceased friend in his Mexican hometown. And “No Country for Old Men” (2007) features the murderous consequences of a drug deal gone wrong near the Mexican frontier.

None of these films encourages you to leave the theater with a smile on your face, either because of the murderous nature of the stories or the economically depressed area in which they occur. “Hell or High Water,” for example, is set in northwestern Texas, an area once known for its enormous ranches. It’s now a part of the state where these ranches have “been slowly carved down and shrunk to where it’s impossible to make a living from them unless they have oil,” says Sheridan, whose film features oil as a key plot point. He adds that in contrast to such booming cities as Austin, Houston and Dallas, “there is no new big booming city there that wasn’t there. Tourism has not become an economy in West Texas.

“The towns are the same size as they were when I was a kid,” adds the 47-year-old Sheridan. “Nothing looks differently to me.”

It’s an “area of small towns with not much in between,” says Scudder. “You can drive for hours before getting to a big city, and I mean just a few thousand people. People who live there are tough and gritty; ranchers live and die by the drought, oilmen live and die by oil prices.”

What they don’t live and die by these days, however, is film production. Neither “Hell or High Water” nor “Nocturnal Animals” was shot in Texas (with New Mexico and California filling in, respectively), because of poor tax incentives for filmmakers, which leads to some interesting problems for production designers.

“We shot parts of the film in the Mojave,” says “Nocturnal Animals” production designer Shane Valentino. “There are similarities between the deserts in California and Texas, but they don’t have Joshua trees in Texas, so you have to go farther out” in the desert to shoot. And for the small town in the film, Valentino opted for the Fillmore area, in Ventura County, where “they have these small towns with main streets. There is a particular architecture and color palette in California, and I wanted to make sure the movie had the same palette as West Texas towns.”

The bottom line for setting a story there? “There is something about the geography, the flatness, the desert element” of the area, says Dallas Morning News film critic Chris Vognar. “It’s the edge of the state, the last frontier of the state that lends itself to stories that are pretty dark. There’s a sense that it goes on forever, and almost anything could happen there.”

calendar@latimes.com

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