Posted by Greg Ferrara on March 12, 2017
His horse rears up his head and looks around, as if something is amiss. The horse’s rider, Willet Gashade, looks around too and as the first notes of a flute make their way into the viewer’s ears, a wave of disquiet has already inundated the surroundings. Something’s not right. Things seem… off kilter. Uneasy. Unsure. The rider makes his way to his destination but soon enough will realize it’s only a starting point to a journey that may or may not end with any sense of meaning or purpose whatsoever. Thus begins Monte Hellman’s extraordinary 1966 film, The Shooting, one of the best films of the 1960s, or any decade, really.
If you’ve never seen The Shooting, first, correct that immediately. Second, be aware, MULTIPLE SPOILERS will follow. I can’t really write about it without detailing the plot so check it out and come back if you must. Otherwise, let’s proceed. Full plot description ahead.
That rider mentioned at the top is played by Warren Oates, one of the greatest presences the screen has ever known. He was a great actor, too, no doubt, but above all, Oates was a presence. He had a look, a sound, and, for lack of a better word, a feeling about him that created the character he was playing the second he popped on the screen. With Oates, simply looking into his eyes gave you all the character background you needed. The character here is Willet Gashade, a former bounty hunter turned miner, making his way back to his mining camp with supplies but no gun.
When Gashade pulls into camp he see a hastily made, and poorly spelled, wooden tombstone memorializing Leland Drum, one of his partners, who was apparently shot and killed while Gashade was away. Then shots ring out and Gashade takes cover only to realize it’s Coley (Will Hutchins), a mining employee who fears he’ll be killed next. When he sees it’s Gashade, he tells him what happened, but it’s only mildly helpful.
Gashade’s brother, Coin (also referenced online as “Coyne,” “Coigne,” and on the subtitles of one version “Cohen,” so take your pick), went into town with Drum, got drunk and trampled two people with his horse. Those two people are a woman, maybe, and a child, maybe again, or possibly it was a little person. Coley doesn’t really know and neither did Drum or Coin, oddly enough. They’re weren’t even sure if anyone died but they think someone did and Coin wasn’t going to wait around to find out so he took Coley’s horse and fled. The next morning, Coley awoke to hear someone talking to Drum, looked out the tent to ask him who it was, but before Drum could answer, a bullet went through his face, killing him and sending Coley into hiding. Which brings us to the present situation.
That’s when Gashade tells Coley he was followed but doesn’t know by whom. He takes Coley’s gun to protect the both of them. Then, a shot rings out, a shot from a rider shooting a lame horse, or so it seems. As Gashade stares ahead, Coley runs for his life, and the shooter appears: a woman (Millie Perkins), who stands atop the hill, staring down on Gashade. Moments later, they meet and she tells him she had to shoot her horse because it broke its leg but when Gashade looks at it later, there’s no broken leg.
The woman never gives her name, and insists on a great many things, some of which she gets, some she doesn’t. But she insists nonetheless. Again and again. She has Gashade and Coley guide her to another town but along the way it becomes clear what they’re really doing is tracking someone. When a hired gun who’s been following them shows up, it becomes even clearer.
The hired gun is Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson), just a couple of letters shy of needing a little help from his friends. The only person he’s interested in is the woman, as is Coley, as is Gashade, probably, though he pretends not to be. Through it all the woman controls all three men, demanding everything of them and consistently getting her way. By the end, having killed off her horse, then taking Coley’s, and insisting he be left behind, then killing Coley’s horse, she takes Gashade’s as he walks behind her, exhausted, along with Spear. She doesn’t bother to keep a slow pace for them.
It wasn’t long into the journey that Gashade figured out she was after his brother but when they find him, in the last minutes of the film, it remains unclear what even happens. She shoots him, he shoots her, and Gashade looks on, saying his brother’s name. We see Spear stumbling through the desert alone. The end.
The movie’s climax raises more questions than it provides answers. Was the woman the mother of a child killed by Coin? If so, she certainly gave no indication of it. She didn’t seem distraught or in the midst of grief at all. Was it her friend, this “little person?” Maybe. Perhaps someone hired her to find Coin and Drum and kill them and then she took the money and hired another gun, Spear, as well as a couple of guides. If it was personal, and she’s the one that hired the killer as revenge, why doesn’t she show up until a couple of days after he successfully kills Drum? We’re pretty sure it wasn’t her because she was following Gashade the whole time. And why didn’t she simply approach Gashade right off the bat? Why wait until he got to camp? Also, at the very end we discover, to our amazement, that Gashade’s brother Coin is his twin! So, if she’s intent on killing Coin, how does she know that Gashade isn’t him? Maybe they pulled a switcheroo. Wouldn’t she kill both just to be sure? And why take the chance of hiring a tracker to find his own brother? In the end, he led her to him but he could have just as easily deceived her and not. Which brings up the next question, why did he lead her to him once he figured out she was after his brother? Why is her dominance over all the men so strong, so complete? And on and on.
These are just a few questions brought up by the ending but you could easily come up with another two dozen or so and still think of more later. Not because the movie is poorly constructed but because it is so masterfully ambiguous in every respect.
Some choose to take this kind of movie and assign historical meaning to each character. That’s fine if that’s your thing and the internet these days loves a good fan theory for any story, ambiguous or not. And believe me, they don’t have to be well reasoned at all. I read one such analysis that even said that the two brothers and Coley were stand-ins for the assassinated Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. A neat trick, since Robert Kennedy and King weren’t assassinated until after the movie was made.
I prefer to take a movie like this as a meditation more than a metaphor. In the end, I don’t really care to know the answers to a single question raised above, I simply love that the movie makes you ask them. When Monte Hellman got the script from the screenwriter, Carole Eastman (writing as Adrien Joyce), he famously got rid of the first ten pages which provided most of the story’s exposition. He didn’t want a bunch of explanation as to who killed whom or who was seeking revenge and for what reason. It was the absolutely wrong decision for distribution purposes (nobody picked it up so it went straight to tv) but it was the absolutely perfect decision for the story. The story isn’t about a plot so much as a journey. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t mind rehashing the whole damn plot for this piece. It’s a way of getting it out of the way to discuss the journey itself and the questions it raises. And the journey is extraordinary.
In practically every other western ever made, the desert has a stoic beauty, a grandeur that provides a dramatic backdrop to the action. Here, Hellman took the journey into a desert that somehow felt like it was closing in from all sides. It’s expansive and yet feels increasingly as if it is bottle-necking before them. In fact, it seems increasingly like it’s not even the planet Earth. It begins to feel like a fantasy world, one desolate of all life save for these weary travelers. It’s a cinematic accomplishment every bit as impressive as Orson Welles and Gregg Toland’s use of deep focus photography in Citizen Kane (1941). In both cases, the wide open spaces surrounding the characters are turned on their head and inverted into cramped prisons. Yes, they diminish the characters but also reveal themselves to be inescapable. Given that Hellman was doing everything on an extremely limited budget and shooting schedule, the results even more impressive.
The journey too is amazing in how it relentlessly strips itself bare until the final shot. One by one, the horses die. The characters deplete in number. And the desert finally gives way to a mountain ridge where we find our surviving characters closed in together in the middle of narrow crevices, ending it all.
The photography closes in as well. The first time we see the woman, Coley and Gashade meet, they are practically posed like a painting, standing in front of each other, profiled in long shot. At the end, the characters are cropped to their shoulders and the frame rate reduced to a couple of frames per second. The whole journey is not just wrapping up, it’s slowing down, running out of energy, dying. The journey, like the horses, finally just gives out. This is cinematic language at its most eloquent. This is a filmmaker speaking to the audience directly, without words, without exposition. This is how great movies are made.
Monte Hellman didn’t have a career filled with accolades and his catalog is uneven, as he took work where and when he could. He started out, as so many filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s, working with Roger Corman, and after this one, Ride in the Whirlwind (1966) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), he should have become one of the most celebrated American directors of the 1970s, along with Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg, but sometimes the great ones slip through the cracks. We can look back and think what could have been if Hellman had been given the keys to the kingdom and allowed to make whatever movies he wanted, whenever he wanted, or we can be grateful for what we’ve got. And that he had the good sense to give so much work to Warren Oates. For that alone, he (and director Sam Peckinpah, another Oates devotee) should have been specially honored. The Shooting remains one of the greats of existential cinema and Hellman, one of its greatest facilitators.
To view The Shooting click here.
Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.
Actors Alfred Hitchcock Bela Lugosi Bette Davis Boris Karloff British Cinema Buster Keaton Cary Grant Charlie Chaplin Citizen Kane Comedy Criterion Dracula DVD Elizabeth Taylor Film Film Noir FilmStruck Frankenstein Fritz Lang Hammer Horror Horror horror films Horror Movies Humphrey Bogart James Bond Joan Crawford John Ford John Huston John Wayne Joseph Losey MGM Movie movies Night of the Living Dead Orson Welles Peter Lorre Psycho Roger Corman Screwball Comedy Steve McQueen TCM The Exorcist Warner Archive Westerns