When most film buffs think of the great revisionist Westerns of the 1960’s and 1970’s, the director’s that always first come to mind are Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Thanks to a pair of new DVD’s America can learn the one name that belongs right up there with them: Monte Hellman. In early 1965, the director went with pal and co-producer Jack Nicholson into the Utah desert to film a pair of movies for producer Roger Corman. Each was shot in 18-day periods separated by a week. The first shot and last released was “The Shooting”.
Anyone expecting a straightforward plot that will be explained to you? BWAH-HAH-HAH! I am now pointing and laughing at you. Screenwriter Carole Eastman (“Five Easy Pieces”) has fashioned a tale where life is screwed up from the first frame for our hero, former bounty hunter turned would-be miner Willett Gashade (Warren Oates). Willett returns to his failing mine to discover not only is his brother Coin missing, but another man, Leland Drum, dead, leaving slow-witted Coley (Will Hutchins) scared for his life and shooting at everything. Coley was half-asleep in his tent when he heard an argument between Leland and someone who may or may not have been Coin.
Before either remaining man can make sense of things, a mysterious woman (Millie Perkins from “The Diary of Anne Frank”) appears near the camp. The mysteries never stop from this point on. First, she shoots her own supposedly lame horse who turns out to have been fine. Then, she hires Willett to accompany her on a trip, only she insists on taking the wrong direction.
Eventually pieces, and only pieces, of what the woman (never named) is really after come to light. Willett realizes that he’s actually tracking whoever is responsible for shooting Leland (possibly even Coin). The woman’s seemingly random shooting along the trail allows a strange sociopathic gunfighter, Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson), that she had previously hired to find them and join the hunt. Another man Willett recognizes from an earlier stop turns up ahead of them in the desert, near death from exposure. Still, the group’s relentless pace never lets up. Willett soon finds himself less than a willing participant and fearful of what exactly is to be found at the end of their journey.
All this weirdness and more leads to an ending that’s as enigmatic as it is violent. All I can really say is that the movie ends as it began, with a shooting.
Damn, what started out as a low-budget “The Searchers” ends up as a somewhat more coherent “El Topo.” This was pretty out there for a ’65 Western, but Hellman did have a purpose. Much of it is based on the director’s reaction to all the TV footage and mystery surrounding Lee Harvey Oswald, and how difficult it is to really make sense of what happened. The movie itself successfully walks the tightrope between existentialism and incoherence. You can tell because any number of interpretations can be applied and they all work. Is Willett not searching for his brother but actually himself? Is the whole movie just occurring in his head to make sense of something he did? David Lynch could have shot this and it might have come out almost exactly the same.
“The Shooting” succeeds both as a Western and as an expression of the political chaos of the times and Warren Oates is brilliant in it. Of course in 1965, it was only going to get (much) worse before it was going to get better. Willett, to his credit, comes to understand that, but still refuses to walk away while he still can. What he failed to learn is the lesson that nearly every Hellman movie teaches us: inflexible ideals of “honor” and “justice” can often lead to an early and violent death. Sometimes the most important thing to understand is when to let things go.
Get the whole story in our MONTE HELLMAN SPECTACULAR! Read the feature KUBRICK IDEAS ON A CORMAN BUDGET: THE GREATNEss OF MONTE HELLMAN. Plus, read our exclusive MONTE HELLMAN INTERVIEW: EXPLOITATION OR EXISTENTIALISM? Read all of our Monte Hellman movie reviews: RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND, FLIGHT TO FURY, CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37, COCKFIGHTER, and the classic TWO-LANE BLACKTOP.