I have to admit that I’m not a huge Western fan. In fact, I can probably count the number of westerns that I’ve actually enjoyed on one hand. However, at the same time, those westerns that I did enjoy also happen to be some of my favorite films of all time. When done poorly, a western can be nearly unwatchable. When done right, however, nothing beats a good western.
Case in point: 1966’s The Shooting.
The Shooting tells the story of Willett Gashade (played by Warren Oates), a former bounty hunter who now makes his living a miner. At the start of the film, he returns to his camp after being gone for several days. At the camp, he discovers one man dead, one man missing, and one sole survivor, the good-natured by simple-minded Coley (Will Hutchins). The panicky Coley explains that the camp was attacked by an unseen gunman and says that it was because the missing man had apparently ridden down “a man and a little person” in a nearby town. How any of this relates to the rest of the film is open to interpretation.
For that matter, the entire film is open to interpretation. That’s one reason why I love it.
The next day, an unnamed, black-clad woman (Millie Perkins) appears at the camp. She hires Gashade and Coley to lead her to a town that lies some distance away, on the other side of an inhospitable desert. Gashade is suspicious of the haughty woman but the far more trusting Coley takes a liking to her immediately.
As Gashade and Coley lead the Woman across the desert, there are hints both obvious and subtle that all is not as it seems. The Woman, at one point, demands to be led in the wrong direction. At another point, the woman suddenly shoots and kills her horse. Eventually, the three of them are joined by Billy Spears (played by a young but already sardonic Jack Nicholson), a well-dressed gunman whose sinister smile does little to hide an obvious sadistic streak and who takes a cruel enjoyment out of taunting and bullying Coley. It all leads to a shockingly violent and deliberately enigmatic conclusion that raises more questions than it answers.
As directed by Monte Hellman (one of the best directors of the 60s and 70s), the film is less concerned with conforming to the rigid expectations of the western genre and, instead, uses the genre as a way to explore the American culture of violence. With its cynical dialogue and its stark imagery of a harsh journey through a seemingly endless desert, it’s little surprise that The Shooting is considered to be an existential western.
Fortunately, The Shooting contains a quartet of fine performances that hold the viewer’s interest, even when the story runs the risk of becoming incoherent. Millie Perkins, who made her film debut playing the title role in 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank, brings an air of genuine menace to the role of the Woman while Will Hutchins provides the movie with a much-needed heart. The main appeal of the film, of course, is to see two iconic actors performing opposite each other and neither Warren Oates nor Jack Nicholson disappoints. Of the two, Nicholson (who co-produced the film with Hellman) has the showier role and he is obviously having a lot of fun playing such an unrepentant villain. Meanwhile, Warren Oates comes across like a hard-boiled film noir hero who has somehow found himself trapped in a western.
Needless to say, with its deliberately obscure storyline and its refusal to provide a traditional conclusion, The Shooting is not a movie for everyone. However, for those willing to take a chance, The Shooting can be a very rewarding film.