Monte Hellman’s “acid” westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, abound in hallucinatory tactility. Hellman doesn’t achieve this aesthetic with conventionally surreal effects; there are no strobe lights or dwarves or even dissolves or ostentatiously fancy colors. Instead, the filmmaker grounds his narratives in so much detail that they encourage in the viewer a hyper-awareness of texture that’s vaguely reminiscent of dreams in which one small element comes to govern or define a social situation. Years after seeing these movies, one might remember a bounty hunter’s hands desperately scooping up the sand in a barren desert in a futile attempt to honor his recently murdered friend, or two pairs of booted feet dangling in the middle of the frame, belonging to recently hung stagecoach robbers. Or the window in a gang’s shack that vividly, eerily provides a constant glimpse of the outside world and all its potential accompanying dangers. One will almost certainly remember the faces in these films, and not only because they belong to rising stars like Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, and Jack Nicholson, but also because they’re marked by dirt and sweat, and by a sense of feral sadness that’s unusual even for most “revisionist” westerns.
Contrasting with this sense of hyper-texture is a pointed element of structural evasion, and the friction between these two formalities proffers an impression of displaced, uprooted chaos. Hellman and his screenwriters (Nicholson and Carole Eastman, the latter writing under a pseudonym) refuse to divulge typical information: The exposition is either absent or delivered in husky rasps that render it barely decipherable, and even casual transitory scenes are subtly chopped up, missing pivotal bits of information. When a man gives a woman his horse because the latter’s stallion has died in the merciless heat, we don’t see her animal die or even the man giving his to her. We only see the man, emasculated, pitiable, as he shares his friend’s horse. Or a bounty hunter, clearly understanding that he’s being trailed by a mysterious interloper, purposefully and inexplicably leaves a trail that allows said interloper to follow him. Why? By the end of The Shooting, we’re offered a possible answer that no longer even matters.
The films revel in a psychology of absence. The pared “just the facts, ma’am” editing rhythms and the acute, pronounced visual details fuse to inform the stories with a Rorschach-like intensity of suggestion. The visual specificity and the contextual vagueness are weirdly, originally unmooring together. Everything we see can mean everything and nothing, as the characters always appear to be heading somewhere between Anywhere and Nowhere. Like Clint Eastwood, Hellman barely distinguishes the heroes from the villains, but unlike Eastwood, he doesn’t make a self-congratulatory show of that basic matter-of-factness. Patriotism isn’t celebrated as a talking point; chance and dumb, unfair luck govern these narratives. This element is particularly pronounced in Ride in the Whirlwind, which features characters who’re pursued because they’re mistaken for belonging to a gang they just happened to be crashing with for a night. The pursuit these characters must elude is so relentless, and disproportionate to the crimes they’re believed to have perpetrated, that it grows in existential stature as well as in quasi-timely relevance (there’s a suggestion of a belated, latent communist witch-hunt subtext, though an indirect Vietnam parallel is obviously more likely).
Ride in the Whirlwind is unquestionably a great movie, with its direct performances, gorgeous imagery, literate, densely jargoned dialogue, and inventively bifurcated duel-siege structure. But The Shooting is the masterpiece of this set: a hauntingly spare and poetic revenge film that gradually transforms into a parable of a snake eating its own tale. Hellman is widely known to have initially garnered producers’ attention with a western take on Waiting for Godot, and that experience explicitly colors The Shooting, a quest narrative that elides any context of the quest until a startling conclusion that shows a man looking into a metaphorical mirror to glimpse his own symbolic soul. The prey pursued by bounty hunter Willet Gashade (Oates) and his clan throughout the narrative is revealed to be Willet’s brother, who’s also, pivotally, played by Oates.
When the brothers briefly look upon one another, in a sequence that’s agonizingly prolonged with elegant slow motion, we’re primed to remember the first-person shots that opened the film, and to recall the feelings of pursuit that have hounded Willet from the outset. Though this is literally a bleak story of brothers finding each other, the emotional takeaway is thornier, wilder, as we feel as if we’ve been watching Willet in a no-exit situation, chasing himself in an endless purgatorial loop across the desert, probably as atonement for a career of killing and for his absence from the mining site at the time of the titular shooting. This ending succinctly cuts to the existential heart of Hellman’s art and to the deepest fears of the quickly commercialized and annihilated countercultural movement: of looking into your greatest enemy’s eyes and seeing, simply, intractably, yourself.
Grain levels and color saturation are impressive, nuanced, and attractive, refreshingly emphasizing the gorgeous compositions that abound in both films. The variations of the browns, which unsurprisingly govern both desert-set westerns, are particularly subtle and beautiful. Skin textures are also extraordinary (inadvertently revealing, as Monte Hellman himself amusingly indicates, Millie Perkins’s refusal to oblige his direction to wear no makeup). The mono tracks are somewhat tricky. It’s legitimately difficult to discern the dialogue at times, most notably in the beginning of Ride in the Whirlwind, but this is probably intentional, given the otherwise clean and precise exactitude of the mixing, as well the somewhat oblique and realist nature of the films’ approach to exposition.
These supplements refreshingly have director Monte Hellman all over them, which is obviously unusual for Criterion restorations of classic films. The audio commentaries with Hellman and film historians Bill Krohn and Blake Lucas offer the pleasure of listening to nerds who get to wax philosophic on great films directly to their maker, who often politely, unpretentiously refutes their bolder claims (charmingly, Krohn and Lucas aren’t to be deterred by Hellman’s hesitance toward symbolism). Even better, the interviews with the surviving cast and crew members, excluding Jack Nicholson, are conducted by Hellman himself, who casually displays a spry erudition and empathy that fosters a sense of intimacy that probably wouldn’t, and couldn’t, have occurred with a normal, detached interviewer. Taken together, the interviews and commentaries are often redundant, but they offer a rich wealth of background context, formal detail (such as Warren Oates’s suggestion that one scene be covered, brilliantly, with a "Chinese dolly"), and poignant personal reflection. This passion, for art and for life, is bolstered by Kim Morgan and Michael Atkinson’s characteristically beautiful appreciations. This is one of Criterion’s best recent supplemental packages.
These Monte Hellman productions aren’t great "cult" westerns or even great westerns. They’re great films, period, and Criterion appropriately honors their elusive, pared, and despairingly and misleadingly plain-spoken brilliance.