Stark says: “I don’t give a curly-hair, yellow bear, double dog damn if ya did.”
If you like your Westerns obscure, oblique and cult then I have four words for you, friend: Monte. Hellman. The. Shooting.
Not to be confused with The Shootist, this is a fine example of a revisionist Western, as well as being one of the first – possibly the first – real Acid Western, and heck, it drops more acid than a side character in a Philip K. Dick novel. Be warned, though: this isn’t the mind-bending, kaleidoscopic acid of Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) or the absurdist, symbolic acid of Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995). This is a bad trip. The worst, the kind where everything looks normal enough only for it to disintegrate, minute by agonising minute, into paranoia, fear and the bleakest amorality. Did I mention it’s also a Western written by a woman, with a female pro-antagonist? Yeah!
The Shooting is considered to be the ‘companion’ film to Ride in the Whirlwind: they were shot back-to-back, with a crew of just seven people and an incredibly low budget. But the two films are about as different as whiskey and water. That’s not to say Whirlwind is a bad film – it has its interesting points – but when it comes to it, The Shooting rides Whirlwind down, ties it to the saddle and drags it away, kicking and screaming into the endless emptiness of the desert. Which is to say, it’s definitely the better film.
Some of the difference in quality can probably be attributed to the fact that The Shooting was written by professional screenwriter Carole Eastman (under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce), whereas Jack Nicholson, comparatively inexperienced at this point, was responsible for Ride in the Whirlwind. While the script of The Shooting is typically sparse, there are some truly wonderful lines and exchanges, as well as dynamic, sharply drawn characters: both things that Ride in the Whirlwind lacks.
The result? Stand out performances from all four of the main actors, including Warren Oates as the surly, mistrustful bounty hunter Willet Gashade and Will Hutchins as his gullible, too-soft-for-the-frontier companion Coley. But joint limelight is shared by Millie Perkins, as the mysterious, cold-as-ice individual known only as The Woman, and by Nicholson, here at his psychotic best as hired gun Billy Spear.
Perkins is just great in this. The first we see of her character are the ol’ Western bad guy wardrobe items of choice: black boots, black gloves, black hat. But – in true revisionist fashion – instead of a grizzled ranch-owner or trigger-happy vigilante, they belong to a young woman, someone traditionally out of place in the hardscrabble, prospecting landscape of the frontier. Gashade and Coley both fall into this trap, consistently underestimating The Woman’s true, ruthless intentions. In fact, if any character is out of place in the desert, it isn’t The Woman, it’s Coley. Throughout the film, his speech betrays his naivety; at a grim trading post he buys sweets and a toy, while The Woman talks in the distance with a mysterious Indian man. He points out a “pretty little bluejay bird, a true sign of good luck” only for The Woman to draw her gun and shoot it dead as target practice.
Perkins’ performance is near perfect. She’s by turns sullen and magnetic, forceful and vulnerable, yet retains all the enigma of the character, keeping us guessing constantly as to her true motives, or whether she has any at all, beyond the act of killing. The moral and emotional gulfs that separate the four characters are constantly highlighted both within the script, and visually. The exchanges between Billy Spear and Coley are a case in point:
Spear: I say something to you?
Coley: I don’t give a curly-hair, yellow bear, double-dog damn if you did.
Spear: I’m going to blow your face off.
Visually, The Woman and Billy Spear are dressed in a similar style, both with black hats, to the extent that Gashade comments: “See how she look like him?” Appearances in The Shooting often draw upon the uncanny. In this sense, it’s more reminiscent of a ghost story than a Western; something like Mizoguchi’s 1953 Ugetsu Monogatari, springs to mind. Motif after eerie motif builds up, leaving us thoroughly unsettled, without entirely being sure why. For example, there are multiple references to Gashade’s brother, Coin, who has vanished after running down “a man and a little person” in a nearby town. “Could’ve been a child,” muses Coley, but we don’t know for certain: events remain opaque, leaving us – like Gashade and Coley themselves – grappling for some kind of explanation.
If things start edgy, they only get edgier as the film progresses. When Gashade first returns to his mining camp, he discovers the grave of his former companion Leland Drum, shot dead in a night by a mystery attacker.
“Leland Drum, a good friend shot dead by I don’t know what and buried in this spot by Coley Boyard his good friend in April.” The carved wooden headstone reads.
“It’s not April,” The Woman tells Coley later, staring coldly at the grave. “It’s March.”
This simple mistake marks the beginning of the film’s descent into a nightmare; of the concrete world beginning to fray, as the things we think of as sacrosanct – names and time and places – slip into confusion. One by one, they fall apart, turning a straightforward journey across the desert to a nearby town into a hellish, Kafkaesque “quest” with no discernible goal and a starkly inevitable outcome. “You’re willing to destruct everything,” Gashade tells The Woman, as her hunt for whoever they are following becomes more desperate, “even yourself.”
Hmm, it’s hard to find any absolute negatives about this film. I mean, one thing that might put people off is the obliqueness of the story. Much of it remains unexplained, and there are quite a few loose ends left flapping in the breeze. The Shooting has been called an existential Western, which should give you some idea of what to expect; if that phrase makes you wince in trepidation, then this probably won’t be your cup of coffee. And if you’re looking for a solid plot, you won’t find one here. The ending is abrupt and as obscure and mysterious as the rest of the film. Saying that, I don’t think that it’s necessarily a bad thing: tonally its consistent, and in a world where viewers are too often babied along and spoon-fed information via info dumps and clumsy plot devices, an ending that leaves us reeling and asking questions is a refreshing thing.
Sometimes there’s a real sense of ingenuity to films that are shot on a shoestring. The Shooting is no exception; with only $75k to play with – and any overspend coming out of the Hellman and Nicholson’s own pockets – they had to get inventive with certain aspects of film making. While the film certainly has a rough readiness to it, it doesn’t feel low budget, mostly thanks to the brilliant location. Filmed entirely in Utah, the dusty, arid landscape is at once familiar and strange. It doesn’t have the instantly recognisable quality of somewhere like Monument Valley, and as a result, is the perfect canvas for a sort of nowhere-place; a nightmare of a frontier, rather than one situated in the real world.
The film makes the best of it, alternating long, lingering shots of the trail with intense close ups, especially of Perkins and Nicholson. Considering the production could only afford eight feet of dolly track, it’s an impressive feat. The lighting plays a big part of this film’s unique look, too. If you like things glossy and artfully lit then steer clear: the budget didn’t stretch to lighting equipment, so cinematographer Gregory Sandor shot the entire film using natural light. If one or two scenes are almost too dark to see, well, that’s just part of the ambience.
All in all, The Shooting is deserves to be much better known than it is, both for Eastman’s clever script, its captivating performances, and for dropping a much-needed dose of acid into the Western genre.