Stark says: “Obliged.”
Monte Hellman’s Westerns are a strange breed. For one thing, it’s hard to talk about one without talking about the other. The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind were shot back to back, after the film’s financier reckoned that, if you’re making one film, why the hell not make two? And while both are considered to be prime examples of revisionist, acid Westerns, they’re also very different films. As a Western, The Shooting, written by Carole Eastman, is female-led, abstract, uncompromising and hallucinogenic. Ride in the Whirlwind, on the other hand, is defiantly realistic; more conventional and plot-driven. It was also written, produced and acted in by Jack Nicholson.
Yep, that Jack Nicholson. He seems an unlikely candidate to pen a bleak, pared-back Western, right? But when you consider how he arrived there – via B-movies – it all starts to make sense. Mix up the Western matinees of the 1950s with some Spaghetti, filter it through counterculture, and presto, you have a revisionist Western a la Nicholson.
Now, I love me a good revisionist, but it’s been a while I saw one quite this bleak. Not in a mauled-by-a-bear-in-the-depth-of-winter bleak, or even a loquacious-gore-fest-shoot-out bleak. I mean an overwhelming-sense-of-hopelessness bleak; a hard-eyed look at the arbitrary yet horribly ironic nature of human existence.
At the very start of the film, cowboys Wes, Vern and Otis (played by Nicholson, Cameron Mitchell and Tom Filer, respectively) come across a barefoot man hanging from a tree. “This ain’t no country to be set afoot,” one of them says grimly. This “country” is to play a major role in the film, both physically and metaphorically. Almost all of the action takes place within a “box canyon”, surrounded by desert on one side and mountains on the other. It’s an intriguing space that simultaneously conceals and entraps the people within it: the catch-22 of the frontier, where in the pursuit of freedom, we run directly into our own chains.
This film is all about catch-22s, rocks and hard places, no win situations… The fun really starts when the cowboy trio stumble into the canyon, currently being used as a hideout by a group of outlaws. They immediately clock the outlaws for what they are, and the outlaws know that they know, but everyone agrees – tacitly – not to let on or start trouble. The cinematography of the cabin scene works hard to capture and heighten the tension. Inside, the shots are awkward, cramped and rigid, in stark contrast to the wide vistas outside.
In fact, it’s the maddeningly simple matter of proximity leads to the cowboys’ downfall. When a posse ambushes the valley, they find themselves lumped in with the outlaws, facing a particularly indiscriminate form of frontier justice. The ensuing chase between the wrongly accused cowpokes and the vigilantes has a noirish, cat-and-mouse-like quality to it: for every step, there's a counter-step.
Some of the best Westerns combine an acute sense of realism with a fabular quality. Take Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) for example, or Kurosawa’s Western-influenced Seven Samurai (1954). To a certain extent, Ride in the Whirlwind taps into this, ultimately coming full circle to bite its own tail, with one man becoming exactly what he is accused of being, thanks to the very justice that seeks to prevent such things.
Ride in the Whirlwind never quite manages to live up to its own strong thematic intentions. We’ve already established it’s terse, moody and naturalistic, but sometimes that hamstrings it, stops it from becoming truly compelling. The scene where the cowboys bed down for the night is a clear example: I honestly can’t remember anything they said. Whilst I’m sure this is indicative of many campfires across many plains, it doesn’t exactly make for thrilling cinema, or accomplished character progression.
Naturalism also hampers the dialogue at times. On a couple of occasions, I wanted to turn on the subtitles, just to understand some of the mumbling. Alas, there weren’t any. While it’s not that bad, with a script that’s already sparse and mostly consists of the word “obliged”, I did feel like every mumble counted.
Monte Hellman is also famous for his hatred of exposition. I too detest it when a character declares: “Don’t you remember where we’re going, Sam? Then I’ll explain…” but Ride in the Whirlwind doesn’t exactly hang around for introductions. At times, I found myself getting confused about who / what / where / how many outlaws and vigilantes there actually were, let alone what they were all called.
Hellman filmed The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind in just 17 days each. He and Nicholson agreed that if they went over budget, they’d pay the difference out of their own pockets; a pact he later regretted, when Nicholson turned out to be an obsessive penny-counter. Made for just $75k, Ride in the Whirlwind is very much a low-budget affair. Whilst that may show in the odd place – in the hiring of a wooden and bewildered-looking local rodeo to play the vigilantes, for example – overall, the film seems tailored to its minimal cast and crew.
The acting is alright, but no one’s at a career best. Nicholson is his usual unsettling self as the youngest of the cowboys, by turns callous, jovial and shy. He’s balanced out by a solid performance by Mitchell as Vern, a man haunted by his own unfolding reality. Harry Dean Stanton steals the outlaw show as Blind Dick, complete with an eye patch, and while Millie Perkins has a lot less to do here than in The Shooting, playing farmer’s daughter Abigail, she’s still a good foil for cowboy’s clumsy threats and reassurances. Apart from, aarrrrrgh, her entirely anachronistic 1960s mascara.
In the past, I’ve heard Hellman’s Westerns described as an “acquired taste”. Like avocado, or whiskey. Sure, they’re not going to be for everyone. Ride in the Whirlwind is, in many ways, a Western on a condensed scale. There are guns, but shoot-outs don’t abound. There’s a chase, but much of it is spent sitting in a cabin listening to the thud, thud, thud of an axe on a tree stump. It’s a Western that isn’t afraid to show the drudgery of the west, or the woolly nature of justice, where “good” or “bad”, vigilante or murderer, might just be a case of where you've happened to lay your bedroll for the night… For all its flaws, Ride in the Whirlwind is certainly worth a watch, especially if you combine it as a double-bill with The Shooting. No points for guessing what I'll be reviewing next, then. Watch this space.
A fun bit of trivia: Both films were shot in Utah, and for years afterwards, Hellman was repeatedly hired and fired by producers who just wanted to know where the remarkable, red and white streaked canyons were. Joke was on them. Shortly after the two films were made, the canyon was flooded to create an artificial lake. Which is surely some kind of metaphor.