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#127. The Shooting - Review

There is a tension that permeates Monte Hellman’s The Shooting (1967) until the very last frame.  An uneasiness that is not unlike the feeling you get walking alone to the bathroom in the middle of the night, pitch black, and all of a sudden a tiny tremor of terror grabs a hold of the tiny hairs on the back of your neck and for a brief moment you feel the presence of a stranger. Of course, as soon as you find safety in the warmth of the bathroom light the feeling disappears, and just as quickly as that feeling of dread forced its way inside your head, it flees, forgotten. Yeah, The Shooting is similar to a dreadful midnight spell; accept even as the credits roll, and the bodies begin to burn in the desert sun that feeling will persist.

The film follows gunman Will Gashade (Warren Oates), an ex-bounty hunter who returns to camp to find his friend Leland deader than he left him, and Coley (Will Hutchins), his simple-minded sidekick, dumber than he remembers. With little time to contemplate their situation, the duo meets up with a mysterious young woman (Millie Perkins), whose intentions are as shadowed as her face by the black cowboy hat she wears atop her head. She gives no name, but does offer the men a job; escort her across the desert to an undisclosed location. Screenwriter Carol Eastman cleverly leaves Will in the dark for most of the picture; this is an adventure the audience and the protagonist will have to survive together.

Matters worsen for Will when he meets up Billy Spears (Jack Nicholson), a dangerous hired gun if you’ve ever seen one and obvious wild card. There is an expected delight watching Nicholson evolving his craft so early in his career. Spears is a time bomb, a reckless and feral maniac that you can’t take your eyes off of for fear of what he might do. Like so many of Nicholson’s antagonists, Spears’ is as enigmatic as he is ferocious, taking delight from not only living life, but also taking it. When the woman asks Billy if he had ever left a friend in the desert to die, and he quickly says he has never had one, you believe him.

Will comes to find out the woman is trailing someone, although the goal is as puzzling as the journey. Eventually all is made clear, or at least as clear as Hellman prefers. Before the credits roll Hellman finally lets up and reveals the “what,” but leaves the “why” up to the viewer. The film’s climactic showdown is bewildering yet satisfying, delivering an “Oh yeah” moment that is immediately followed by incertitude. Theorized as being a cinematic metaphor of the John F. Kennedy assassination in 1963, The Shooting’s success thematically is perhaps is impressive now than its visual splendor. What is for certain is the film’s lasting impression on the genre, and how it redefined narrative expectations to produce a singular western experience

Like always, link the site and leave any comments you may have on Nicholson's career or The Shooting if you have seen it.

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