' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Shooting (1966)

Friday, June 11, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Shooting (1966)

Director Monte Hellman purportedly said his 1966 Western “The Shooting” was a reaction to the JFK assassination or, perhaps more accurately, a reaction to the myriad conspiracy theories and unknowable elements surrounding the JFK assassination. Of course, even with the strange sight of a lone man with an umbrella lying in the middle of the desert a thousand miles from nowhere midway through “The Shooting”, you are not likely to make that connection. Still, you don’t need to know the late Hellman’s apparent theory of his own work to read his movie as an eerie journey into the insoluble. The movie opens with Gashade (Warren Oates) returning to his mining camp after a prolonged absence, finding it down two men with only the feeble-minded if talkative Coley (Will Hutchins) left. Coley proceeds to explain what happened, that the other two men, Drum and Coigne, the latter being Gashade’s twin brother, ran into some serious trouble in town, possibly causing a death. Upon returning to the camp, Drum was shot dead and Coigne fled, apparently to evade reprisal, setting up a genuine question: what happened to Coigne? Hellman, working from a script by Adrian Joyce, poses this query by laying out the corresponding scenes in explicit flashbacks rather than enigmatic ones, providing the appearance of straightforwardness before pulling the rug out from under us. 

Not long after telling this story, a stranger appears on the horizon, a recurring shot in “The Shooting”, where characters are presented as utterly alone in an unforgiving desert, any other figure glimpsed in the distance immediately denoting menace. Yet when the character appears to Gashade and Coley, up close, and in close-up, she comes across no less clear, evinced in her character name – simply, The Woman (Millie Perkins). She says she had to shoot her horse because it had come up lame. But when Gashade finds her horse later, he notes nothing is wrong with it. Upon saying this, a creepy smile dashes across The Woman’s face, though only for a moment, Hellman, who also edited, cutting away before the smile has stretched all the way across her lips. It’s a deft editing trick that makes us question what we’ve just seen, whether that smile was really there, a kind of phantasm as foreshadowing. The Woman offers Gashade a thousand dollars to guide her to a place called Kingsley, and though she won’t say what for, Gashade agrees, enlisting Coley in the effort too. Gashade’s motivations, which initially might seem strictly financial based on the meagerness of his camp surroundings, become less clear as “The Shooting” moves along, their journey waiting for a moment of clarity that never comes.

That might sound excruciating, like a 1960s predecessor to Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry.” Yet the strangeness of the characters, the weirdness of the performances, keeps you hooked. Oates plays his role with his agreeable off-kilter tone, like he’s been out in the desert sun too long, often starting sentences with an “Uhhhh” that feels like someone trying to find his way into saying what he knows what he wants to say but has momentarily forgotten how to say. Hutchins brings a kooky endearment to the part of a kid who is unknowingly in over his head while Perkins gives the spoiled little brat archetype a savage bent. When she washes her face with some of Gashade’s water, dismissing it as stagnant, it’s improbably a funnier, more virulent version of Princess Vespa of “Spaceballs” being called on that giant hairdryer in the middle of the Vega Moon’s desert. And we haven’t even discussed the gunslinger, Billy Spear, who shows up midway through, played by Jack Nicholson as fast on the draw but slow on the uptake, kind of quoting Paul Newman’s dullard version of Billy the Kid in “The Left Handed Gun”, so out-there I’m not sure you would have seen this movie in 1966 and thought “Now there’s a star.” This is a compliment.

The link between Billy Spear and The Woman is never explicit. Are they lovers? Brother and sister? Something else? It doesn’t matter. It’s less a clue, really, than one of innumerable superficial details liable to leave you feeling like poor Coley when Gashade tells him to hang back and wait for he and the Woman to get back from wherever they are going, leading to an indelible, spectacularly droll shot in which the hapless Coley just there by himself in the desert like a little kid sent to his sand-lined room in lieu of dinner. If there’s a plot, it’s deliberately impenetrable, perhaps because there’s nothing there at all in the first place. This is evoked in the ending, where the obligatory showdowns and shootouts yield little in the way of payoffs, building to a moment of slow motion drama that cuts off almost before you get a handle on it, like reaching the edge of the universe only to find you’re looking in a mirror, life as some infinite, infernal loop. I kind of loved it.

No comments: