The Art of Halyna Hutchins

What we lost in the shooting death on the set of ‘Rust’

The fallout from the shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the Alec Baldwin-led Western Rust on October 21 continues, with detectives still investigating the circumstances surrounding the shooting and fellow cinematographers calling for a ban on functional firearms on film sets. Hutchins was only 42. People considered her a rising star in her field (American Cinematographer magazine proclaimed as such in 2019), and, after her death,  many colleagues remembered her as a galvanizing personality and a tirelessly hard worker. It’s a tragedy on just about every level—but the sadness only increases when one watches the five features she shot and gets a sense of the talent that is no longer with us, of the development that the shooting cruelly cut short.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Though some cinematographers have become known for having distinct stylistic signatures—Wong Kar-Wai regular Christopher Doyle, for instance, with his wide-angle lenses, luminous neon colors, and smeary camera movements; Gordon Willis (the first two Godfather films, Manhattan) and his genius with chiaroscuro lighting; among others—we still generally consider cinematographers more at the service of the director, collaborating with them to fully realize their vision. Perhaps, had she lived longer, Hutchins might have developed her own distinctive style. Still, among the five features she shot that I caught up with, at least, it’s clear she was well on her way, especially when it came to how she used natural light and handheld camerawork for maximum expression and atmosphere.

Perhaps her most high-profile credit up until her passing was Archenemy (2020), Adam Egypt Mortimer’s own idiosyncratic take on the superhero genre. Outside of Joe Manganiello’s compelling performance as the maybe-superhero Max Fist and some colorful comic-book-style animated sequences, it’s generally more interesting in concept than in execution. But in the live-action scenes, Hutchins infuses the film with a wealth of visual interest through tilted angles, energetic behind-the-shoulder tracking shots, lens flares, and vibrant lighting. If nothing else, Archenemy consistently looks slicker than its low-budget origins suggest.

All of the features she shot share that quality: She consistently took on offbeat independent projects, mostly within the realms of action and fantasy genres, and used their low-budget origins as an opportunity to experiment with look and technique. Cate Devaney’s The Mad Hatter (2021) is essentially a standard haunted-house yarn with disappointingly half-baked gestures at enlarging into an allegory about grief (and beyond having one character say “down the rabbit hole,” it has very little to do with Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland character). But Hutchins milks the low-lit nighttime interiors for as much creepiness as she can muster. And in an opening flashback sequence, she pulls off an impressive swirling long take through a 19th-century party that wouldn’t be too out of place in, say, a Max Ophüls French period drama from the 1950s.

Halyna Hutchins
‘Snowbound’

In her earliest feature, Olia Oparina’s 2017 mystery-thriller Snowbound (or Ice Cage, as it’s titled on Tubi and IMDb TV), that same ability to wring maximum menace from dim interiors alternates with bright white wintry exteriors and overhead drone shots that feel similarly foreboding. By contrast, there’s some erotic sizzle in a handful of flashback sequences set at a sex party. It may well be Hutchins’s most consistently impressive credit, visually speaking, its imagery keeping us engaged even as its central mystery—which revolves around a bunch of random strangers who must figure out who among them was responsible for the death of a fellow sex-party guest the night before—progresses to a rather unsatisfying resolution.

There’s less fantastical visual dazzle in Blindfire (2020), a based-on-real-events cop thriller that dramatizes a white officer’s crisis of conscience after he kills an innocent unarmed Black man. Here, Hutchins taps more into her former journalist background, using handheld camerawork and even, at one point, a Spike Lee-like double dolly shot, to induce an overall feeling of a character’s sense of perspective thrown askew. Beyond its gritty visual qualities, Michael Nell’s film is noteworthy primarily for the earnestness with which it explores its white main character’s internal and external psychological struggles—a perspective that feels daring amid recent calls in some quarters for defunding the police after last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.

‘Blindfire’

And then there’s Darlin’ (2019), the best of the films Hutchins shot. Writer/director/star Pollyanna McIntosh’s sequel to Lucky McKee’s 2011 horror film The Woman is, in some ways, a much better film than its predecessor: funnier, more humane, and more playful than McKee’s grindingly unpleasant faux-feminist provocation. Instead of toxic masculinity, the main antagonist of Darlin’ is Catholicism, mostly in the form of a manipulative bishop (Bryan Batt) who sees in the title character (Lauryn Canny)—the grown-up surrogate daughter of the feral cannibalistic woman (McIntosh) who destroyed much of the rest of her family at the end of The Woman—an opportunity at a public redemption story that will bring in more money for his church.

The satirical targets in Darlin’ might not be fresh, exactly, but the religious context allows Hutchins to come up with some of the most memorable images of her sadly short career. In particular, there is one simple scene, a dialogue exchange between the Bishop and Sister Jennifer (Nora-Jane Noone), who sees in Darlin’ something of a kindred spirit, in which a single ray of light shines onto the Sister while the Bishop, towering over her, stands in near-darkness. It’s the kind of imaginative, impassioned image-making that you don’t always find in scripts, instead often coming from a cinematographer truly inspired by the material. Hutchins was really just getting started. Rest in peace.
‘Darlin,’ Halyna Hutchins, cinematographer.

 You May Also Like

Kenji Fujishima

Kenji Fujishima is a writer and editor based in New York City. He has previously written about film for publications including Village Voice, Slant Magazine, and Paste, and about theater for TheaterMania.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.