Acid Westerns: The Shooting (1966)

I am going to write a number of essays about the acid Western, although I am not sure there is such a thing. The phrase was dismissively used by Pauline Kael in her unflattering review of Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1970 film "El Topo" and then was revived in Jonathan Rosenbaum's review of Jim Jarmusch's 1995 film "Dead Man." 

While Kael used the phrase mockingly, Rosenbaum found the idea of an acid Western laudable, and clumps several films together under this categorization. Specifically, "Jim McBride's 'Glen and Randa,' Dennis Hopper's 'The Last Movie,' Monte Hellman's 'The Shooting' and 'Two-Lane Blacktop,' Robert Downey's 'Greaser's Palace,' and Alex Cox's 'Walker,' not to mention such novels as Rudolph Wurlitzer's 'Nog and Flats.'"

 Rosenbaum doesn't identify what he means by acid Western, nor does he identify what these films have in common with each other, nor does he demonstrate that there was ever a self-conscious movement that deliberately made acid Westerns. And there wasn't. As far as I can tell, nobody ever set out to make something called an acid Western.

But nobody set out to make a folk horror movie either; at least, not until recently. Not until filmmaker Mark Gatiss clumped three previously unrelated films together under that name: "The Wicker Man," "Blood on Satan's Claw," and "Witchfinder General." Superficially, the three films barely resemble each other, but Gatiss recognized and responded to some thematic similarities, including the strangeness of the English countryside and the possibility of a small rural group returning to paganism.

Once he had given a name to these themes, suddenly there seemed to be a lot of older films that could be re-identified as folk horror, and then there came new movies self-consciously working in that idiom, particularly including the films of Ben Wheatley.

So what are the qualities of an acid Western? Wikipedia has a page on the subject, claiming the films combine "the metaphorical ambitions of critically acclaimed Westerns, like 'Shane' and 'The Searchers,' with the excesses of the Spaghetti Westerns and the outlook of the 1960s counter-culture."

But, since nobody was self-consciously making acid Westerns, it's hard to pin them down. They tend to have a somewhat downbeat, cyclical quality to them that feels appropriate to the late 60s, when the utopian dreams of the early Hippie movement had given way to a frustrated, sometimes despairing fatalism. Acid Westerns don't simply borrow from Italian revisionist Westerns, they also borrow techniques from art house films. And they typically aren't simply metaphoric, but somewhat psychedelic, as their name implies.

"The Shooting" is very art house. It was directed by Monte Hellman, who had a taste for Existentialism and absurdism, and scripted by Carole Eastman under a pseudonym and contained a lot of the same bruising frustration with masculine immaturity and bluster that she brought to her script for "Five Easy Pieces."

The film was produced by Jack Nicholson, who also appears in it, and, as a producer, he was reportedly unbearable, refusing to spend any money at all. As a result, this is one of the most stripped-down westerns ever made, with barely any sets or extra characters. Instead, it is about two failing prospectors, one a former bounty hunter (played with constant wariness by Warren Oates), one a noisy simpleton (played by Will Hutchins) who are hired by a distant, belittling young woman (Millie Perkins) to guide her into the Utah wilderness.

She won't explain why, or even tell them her name, but pauses occasionally to fire a gun into the ground, a signal to a cheerful bully of a hired gun who is following them. This is Nicholson, dressed in dapper black leather, looking like a frontier dandy but with a fast gun hand and a psychotic temperament.

The dialogue for the film is marvelous, written in an exaggerated Western argot, but the true hero of the film is the Utah wilderness. It simultaneously dwarfs the characters and exposes them, to both each other and to the elements, with both proving to be unsparing and fatal. It quickly becomes clear that this movie is a march toward death, with an ambiguous, confusing gunfight at the end.

If it's not entirely clear who kills who, it's clear that it doesn't matter, because nobody is surviving this journey. And there is something about that story that feels appropriately hallucinogenic — LDS users describe how sooner or later the trip is going to involve the user confronting their own mortality. 

It's a bleak film, and it's easy to see why it never received a proper release. It played a few festivals and generally got good notices, but was unable to find a theatrical distributor. Eventually it was picked up by the Walter Reade Organization, who sold it directly to television. It's the sort of oddball independent film that would play at 2 a.m., which isn't a great way to find a mass audience, but the perfect way to develop a cult audience.

So the film's reputation grew over the years (along with a partner film, "Ride in the Whirlwind," by the same director and much of the same cast, shot at almost exactly the same time; I will write about that film later.) And it's understandable. Although this film contains no supernatural elements, it is shot through with the sort of sense of strangeness you find in art house horror films.

It feels somehow apocalyptic, like its characters are among the last survivors of an unsubscribed and unmentioned end-of-time event, and have reverted to a sort of cowboy primitivism in which they lead each other around without explanation through an uncompromising desert to the moment when, out of boredom or cruelty or revenge, they kill each other or are left behind to die.

It sticks with you. It climbs in and just sort of irritates, forcing you to think about its meanness, or its little moments of compassion or humor, or its cynicism or fatalism.

It's a cult film in a really pure way. I don't necessarily want to see it again, but I feel like I have to, to wrestle with parts of the film that seem deliberate but unresolved, to see how I feel about things in the film, to get a firmer grasps of the films shape and textures.

It's not letting me go. Some time in the future, I will go back into that desert with Oates, Nicholson, et al, and ponder again their march toward death. I can' help myself.


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