THE SHOOTING B USA (82 mi) 1966 d: Monte Hellman
The one thing that’s purposely ambiguous is what it’s all about, why all this is happening, and that’s built into the story and the reasons for the story. —Monte Hellman
An existential exercise in futility, a minimalist road movie, and an abstract, theater-of-the-absurd essay made during the gloom of the post Kennedy assassination, along with the rampant fear and anxiety from the build-up of nuclear weapons by the two superpowers, this feels like a doomsday scenario, taking westerns into a bleak nihilistic void where there is no way out, a predecessor to Peckingpah’s fatalistic The Wild Bunch (1969), and a model for Jim Jarmusch’s acid western Dead Man (1995), representing a moody yet pensively expansive style firmly rooted in the mid-60’s. Made on a budget of just $75,000, with a crew of just seven people, shot in three weeks in the Utah desert back-to-back in a six-week shooting with RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (1966), a package deal, both written by Carole Eastman (aka Adrien Joyce), who also wrote Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), which captured the 60’s counterculture mood of rebellion and alienation, and the film that turned Jack Nicholson into a household name. But these earlier films came out of the Roger Corman B-movie school, with Jack Nicholson as a co-producer and actor, released straight to television, as no domestic distributor took any interest, playing only in selected film festivals around the world, including out of competition at Cannes, endorsed by the editorial staff of Cahiers du Cinéma, the film developed a reputation for being scarcely ever seen, with most initially being introduced to it on television, where it wasn’t like anything else in the medium. If anything, the only comparable viewing might have been Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959 – 64), as it has a near science fiction feel, audaciously subverting the Western genre. What stands out in the film is lack of expository information, only a looming sense of dread, driven by an overriding sense of paranoia, with Hellman ripping up the first ten pages of the script and starting midstream, leaving viewers to fend for themselves in this mind-altering wasteland, as no one’s aims or motivations are ever revealed, leaving one questioning everything that’s happening, as it’s absent significant facts and story elements. While there are plenty of clues offered, there is no real payoff, where you may end up scratching your head wondering just what happened, as the film is ambiguous enough that there is no certain answer. The true joy of watching this film is having the privilege to view Warren Oates in a starring role, as he developed a reputation for being one of the greatest character actors in secondary roles. Listing 124 credits throughout his career, only five are in starring roles, with this being the first. The others are playing a private eye in CHANDLER (1971), a notorious bank robber in DILLINGER (1973), a trainer of birds in the illegal “sport” of cockfighting in Monte Hellman’s COCKFIGHTER (1974), and a piano playing bar owner turned bounty hunter in Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). He plays a bounty hunter here as well, but refuses the label, preferring the term professional tracker, which is more in line with what he does, as in this film he’s after someone, but doesn’t really know who he’s following. According to Danny Peary in his 1986 recommendation of more than 1500 must-see films, The Guide for the Film Fanatic, Hellman’s is an “unusual, interesting West, ugly, barren and godforsaken…a lonely, cruel world,” where “the good guys find themselves in a predicament beyond their comprehension.”
After an extended absence, one-time bounty hunter Willet Grashade (Warren Oates) returns to a remote mining camp that he operates with his brother Coigne, seemingly deserted until a bullet buzzes by his ear coming from his overly jittery friend Coley (Will Hutchens), scared out of his wits, but with a story to tell, as his partner Leland Drum is recently buried while Coigne is nowhere to be seen. Both recently visited the town of Winslow where Coigne got wildly drunk, inadvertently trampling a young boy to death. The two got to arguing upon their return to camp, with Coigne taking off after Drum was gunned down by an unknown assailant, leaving Coley holed up in his tent panicked and petrified, afraid of anything that moved. After hearing a hysterical version of the story that probably no one but Willet could understand, his response is priceless, delivered as only Warren Oates can deliver a line, “My mind’s all unsatisfied with it.” The next day, a mysterious woman arrives unexpectedly on foot, Millie Perkins (Hellman’s next door neighbor), dressed in bad guy wardrobe, black boots, black gloves, and black hat, unlikeable right away, claiming her horse broke a leg so she was forced to shoot it, offering $1000 dollars to escort her to the town of Kingsley. A close examination of her horse, however, reveals no injuries or broken bones, so Willet is immediately suspicious, not the kind of woman to trust, even more so when she refuses to provide her name or her intentions, a female counterpart to Clint Eastwood’s A MAN WITH NO NAME (1964), so initially he refuses her offer. But thinking his brother Coigne is likely mixed up in this, he gives it some second thoughts, changing his mind in the hopes he can find out what happened to him, as clearly he is on the run. Bringing the childlike Coley along, who is something of an innocent half-wit, he lags behind, struggling with a mule for food and provisions, continually criticized by the woman for slowing them down. Almost immediately the mule is stolen in the night. Nonetheless, Coley is sweet on the woman, while Willet senses danger, warning Coley not to trust her, finding her demanding, overly manipulative, and cold-hearted, while complaining all the time, as she purpously changes course, forcing them off their initial path, following the tracks of a rider a day or so ahead of them, refusing to rest, increasing their pace, with designs on catching him. She also has a nasty habit of shooting her guns off, as if issuing warning signs of some kind, marking their position. Sure enough, in no time they are joined by a sinister Billy Spears (Jack Nicholson), initially introduced with just a close-up on his eyes, a taunting and cocky man also dressed in black who is a hired gun with some past connection to the woman, as they seem to be in cahoots together, both thoroughly unlikeable, bordering on psychopathic, feeling no remorse, completely altering the dynamic, as Spears collects Willet’s gun, effectively making the other two men prisoners. Production values are so slight, at times it resembles watching an early Star Trek (1966–69) television episode, especially when they were running low on money, as there are few props, minimal conversation, and lengthy shots of riders traveling through a barren desert landscape under relentess heat, where there are few, if any spots to find shade. Nonetheless, the woman rides her horse hard, offering little rest or water, and with little thought about it, singlemindedly pursuing her target.
The disdainful attitude of the woman is clear right from the beginning, where she apparently likes telling others what to do, showing no regard whatsoever for their safety. Willet has ample opportunity to escape, but sticks around to protect Coley, who is continually bated by Spears, as if goading him for a fight, while remaining intently curious how things will play out. The woman is completely underestimated throughout the journey, perhaps best expressed by a moment when Coley finds a bluejay, a colorful sign of life in the middle of nowhere, which he detects as a positive omen, until the woman blows it away, using it for target practice, revealing just how utterly ruthless she can be. When the woman rides her horse to exhaustion, she takes Coley’s horse, forcing him to ride with Willet, placing a terrible strain on that horse as well, so he is ordered to stay behind on foot under the inescapable hot sun, with Willett promising to come back for him. By this time, Spiers collects all that remains of the dwindling water, not particularly interested in sharing. The landscape gets more desolate while the behavior gets more and more threatening, revealing a surrealist moment of discovering another stranger in distress left out into the open to die (Charles Eastman, brother of the screenwriter), apparently with a leg broke, unable to move (only God knows how he ended up there), with Coley able to corral his horse, making a beeline straight to Spears who shoots him dead on the spot, no questions asked, one of many dumb things happening throughout this film, as no one seems prepared for the actual journey they are taking, but they plunge forward anyway, motivated by greed or revenge, soon completely out of water with horses dying or growing lame right out from under them, left to pursue their victim on foot. What follows is a road to nowhere, becoming a death drive, where there is no exit and no escape, a kind of Hell on earth where nothing can survive, shot by Gregory Sandor using natural light, recreating the blazing hot desert sun conditions of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), where all rationality is replaced by a sun-baked delirium, and all that’s left is madness, as humans are reduced to a Zombie-like state. Willett knows the journey will end in doom, but he is somehow compelled to see how it plays out, driven by undefinable forces, as if embracing oblivion, first realizing Spears is suffering the effects of heatstroke, then jumping on him, finding a rock, and breaking the bones in his shooting hand, before running ahead to the woman who finds herself in a shooting spree, eying her target just as he eyes her, both wiping each other out in a nonsensical moment of absurdity, where meaning and reason have left the earth, replaced solely by primal instinct which has its way. In the background, Spears rises, as if from the dead, but wobbles and stumbles off-balance, still delirious under the hot sun. The film is more a cautionary tale or a morality parable than a narrative thriller or Western, absent all coherency, kind of an oldie but goodie, yet frustrating and creepy don’t even begin to describe the meandering quality of this experience, reflecting the mindset of those living off the fringe, outsiders in complete isolation, seemingly existing in the deep recesses of the subconsciousness, like a mythical tale of old.