' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Ride the Whirlwind (1966)

Friday, June 23, 2023

Friday's Old Fashioned: Ride the Whirlwind (1966)

They that sow the wind, goes the Bible, shall reap the whirlwind. In other words, one will (must) suffer negative consequences for their actions. “Reap the whirlwind,” Billy the Kid (Emilio Estevez) says to Sheriff Brady before plugging him with a bullet to kick off the Lincoln County War in 1988’s “Young Guns.” When I was a kid, I loved that movie, an MTV Western, a genre rarely spoken of in university film classes, and I thought of it all throughout “Ride the Whirlwind,” Monte Hellman’s 1966 companion piece to his other 1966 western “The Shooting.” (In a feat of indie necessity, the two movies were shot concurrently.) Indeed, Hellman’s movie is as austere and impenetrable as “Young Guns” was flamboyant and obvious. “Ride the Whirlwind” stars Jack Nicholson though not the Jack Nicholson you know. This is the pre-stardom Jack, all the irony strained from his familiar raspy voice, playing his part sincere if slow-witted, a dullard, embodying this delicious if difficult inversion of riding the whirlwind, essentially transforming the eponymous Biblical parable to a cruel cosmic joke.

“Ride the Whirlwind” begins with a stagecoach robbery in the middle of nowhere Texas that doesn’t happen so much in slow motion as real time which is to say it is rendered with matter-of-fact mundanity. The bandits (including young Harry Dean Stanton with a patch on one eye) hang one of the coach riders, a body happened upon not long after by a trio of cowhands, Wes (Nicholson), Vern (Cameron Mitchell), and Otis (Tom Filer). The way Hellman shoots this discovery, the camera pulling back from the three men standing in a stupefied silence to slowly reveal the hanged body suggests a kind of spiritual transference. These cowhands are merely on their way to Waco, but when they unwittingly take shelter with the bandits at their hideout for one night and a gang of vigilantes turns up seeking vengeance, these innocents unintentionally are judged guilty, going on the run, reaping a whirlwind that is not in any theirs.

In a way, “Ride the Whirlwind” is a Wrongfully Accused movie, or maybe a Wrongfully Assumed movie, but not one in which proving innocence is paramount or, indeed, part of the story at all. That can partially be ascribed to its nature as a chase movie, though the chase can feel oddly detached, mirrored in how Vern and Wes, who wind up on their own after Otis is shot, feel oddly resigned. When they finally happen upon an isolated farm, they hold the family hostage as they get something to eat and try to rest, waiting out the authorities, repeatedly asserting their innocence to the father and mother and daughter who are not inclined to hear it, not that Vern and West protest all that vigorously. At one point, they play a game of checkers, like two guys just killing time until the end, which is what the whole chase comes to epitomize, ending with Wes's riding into the sunset, a magnificent inversion of another cliché, the wide-open landscape reducing him to a speck in a meaningless universe. 

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