|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 24 October 2000|
For the background on this film, see our review of 'Ride in the Whirlwind;' the two films were made back-to-back by director Monte Hellman, who coproduced with Jack Nicholson. They were shot on handsome, even striking, locations near Kanab, Utah, with excellent cinematography by Gregory Sandor. Roger Corman, who served as an uncredited producer/executive producer, sold both films to another company -- which released them straight to television. They had no U.S. theatrical release for many, many years.
'The Shooting,' however, ran for a year in France; it wasn't just a film buff hit, either -- the general public became fond of both it and 'Ride in the Whirlwind.' Now VCI have released both of them in excellent shape on DVD; the films look better than they EVER have. And both are enhanced by very good commentary tracks, featuring Hellman, Millie Perkins (who's in both movies) and Dennis Bartok of the American Cinematheque.
Despite being made one after the other, being directed by Hellman, and sharing some of the cast (Nicholson's in both of them) and all of the crew, the two films are very different. 'Ride in the Whirlwind,' written by Nicholson, is a tight, realistic story about some innocent cowpokes on the run. 'The Shooting,' written by Carol Eastman (as 'Adrian Joyce'), is a nearly-surrealistic, existential-themed conundrum. Although on the commentary track, Bartok praises the film for its realism, at heart, it's anything but realistic. It's been satisfying and puzzling people in roughly equal numbers for years.
Willett Gashade (Warren Oates) returns to the mining claim (or something like that) he'd been running with his brother Colin and their friends Coley (Will Hutchins) and Leland, only to be told by a frightened Coley that after they returned from town, Colin fled, and Leland was shot dead by an unseen gunman. There's something about Colin having ridden down "a man and a little person, maybe a child," but Coley's not sure about that.
The next day, a Woman (Millie Perkins), whose name is never revealed -- which annoys Gashade -- turns up at the camp, offering to pay Gashade handsomely to guide her to a town that's some distance off, beyond a dangerous desert. When she ups the ante to a thousand dollars and agrees to allow the open, friendly Coley to accompany them, Gashade grumpily agrees. She said she had to shoot her horse when it broke its leg, but when they're getting her gear off the animal's body, Gashade is confused and annoyed to realize the animal was perfectly sound. (Why did she shoot the horse? We never know, any more than we know why she drives off a pack mule later.)
As they cross the desert, Gashade eventually realizes that she's actually in pursuit of a pair of horsemen, though she won't really admit to this. Coley notices they're being followed by a lone man on horseback, who turns out to be hired gun Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson), who seems to be employed by the woman, too. Or maybe they were lovers, or even brother and sister.
On and on they ride, the bad-tempered woman manipulating the suspicious Gashade through the child-like Coley, who's madly in love with her. There's a killing later on (is it the shooting of the title?), and a final confrontation high up a mountain that raises many questions and answers none.
If you're willing to relax into the slow, measured rhythms of the movie, and to accept the idea that it's an open-ended question, not really a story, 'The Shooting' can be very rewarding. Warren Oates, in an early leading role, is excellent -- he was never anything else -- as the honest but suspicious Gashade. He's very fond of the hapless Coley, and curious about the Woman.
Perkins is also excellent as the enigmatic, bad-tempered woman, whose goals we're never sure of. She controls all three men, but what's controlling HER remains a mystery. She's snappy, whiny, arrogant, edgy and driven -- on to the brink of Hell. On the commentary track, Perkins says 'The Shooting' is her favorite of all her movies, and it's easy to see why: it's an excellent role, complex, elusive, layered.
Will Hutchins plays Coley just a bit too broadly; it's a comic performance in the midst of grimness -- he has a great bit when he scampers across the camp with a leaking bag of flour, a bizarre bit of near-slapstick behind Oates' scowling face. But Coley is a likable character, for all his hayseed ways. After this film, Hutchins moved to Australia and became a circus clown, returning to intermittent acting years later.
Jack Nicholson was still finding his way as an actor in this period, but he's excellent in both movies; his characters are as different as the films. In 'Whirlwind,' he's an ordinary cowboy, polite, uneducated, hardworking. In 'Shooting,' he's a tight-lipped, cruel killer (with occasional odd undertones of vulnerability), mean to his bones. Eastman's script doesn't allow him any of the usual gunslinger character traits (other than a black hat and gloves); he makes no wisecracks, he doesn't have a colorful past (he doesn't seem to have a past at all); he's just a man with a gun. The script gives him a few good lines, though, that Nicholson delivers with his trademark drawl. As the commentary track suggests, his later screen persona can be seen to be a blend of his roles in these two Westerns.
The movie is pretentious, though; there's no avoiding that. An exchange that delights both Hellman and Perkins on the commentary track isn't necessarily all that clever: "I don't see the point of it," Gashade says to the woman. "There isn't any," she replies. See? See? Existentialism spelled out right before your eyes. Some of the other dialog is self-consciously colorful: when Coley responds innocently to one of the woman's quips, Gashade snaps, 'She's been chafin' you, can't you sense?' In an exchange with Billy Spear, Coley responds, with some dignity (Hutchins' reading is excellent), "I don't give a curly-hair, yellow-bear, double dog damn if you did."
On the other hand, there's some very good writing here too, as when the woman, a shade concerned about leaving Coley behind, asks the gunman, "Billy, did you ever leave behind a friend?" "I never did have one," he replies.
The enigmatic quality of 'The Shooting' is at once the element that has created its strong reputation, and the part that will most quickly turn off a casual viewer. There's no doubt the film is pretentious, and doesn't quite measure up to its pretensions. But there's also no doubt that it is a one-of-a-kind movie, well made, well-acted, and physically beautiful, especially on this fine DVD.