Acid Westerns: Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)
This is the second of two films director Monte Hellman and actor Jack Nicholson made back-to-back (Nicholson also produced and, for "Ride in the Whirlwind," wrote the screenplay), the first being "The Shooting." Both were largely paid for by Roger Corman, who always liked to shoot two movies back-to-back at the same location with substantially the same cast). Both are considered early examples of Acid Westerns, although there has been a lot more critical attention paid to "The Shooting." With its bleak, minimalist storyline and somewhat garbled, accidentally hallucinogenic ending, feels somehow acidic in a way this film doesn't.
Superficially, "Ride in the Whirlwind" is a pretty straightforward film about three cowboys mistaken for outlaws by a posse. It shares with "The Shooting" a tremendous sense of environment, thanks to Hellman's keen eye for framing his actors in their setting — once again, his cast feels lost in a wilderness, surrounded by it and defenseless against it, and miles from civilization.
Although the film's cost the same, "Ride in the Whirlwind" feels more expensive, more ambitious. It has a larger cast and two Western sets, although, admittedly, both sets are ramshackle shacks that feel constructed out of wood found lying on the ground. This is the edge of the frontier, almost completely empty of inhabitants (but for a single squatting farmer family), and it's the perfect place to rob a stagecoach, as happens at the start of the film.
The robbers are a small gang led by a one-eyed bandit, played by Harry Dean Stanton, who reportedly received a single piece of advice from Jack Nicholson: Let your costume do the acting. Stanton doesn't quite do that, but turns in a friendly, subdued performance that relies on his haunted face to tell his story, which ends badly for him, as well as for his gang. Caught by the posse, they are either shot or lynched. One of the gang members is black, played by Rupert Crosse, and while the scene in filmed like any other frontier justice scene in any other Western, the filmmakers must have known the implications of showing a black man hanged by a group of white men.
I should pause for a moment to revisit the fact that the script was written by Nicholson. He has gone on to be one of the most recognized and celebrated actors of his generation, but, early in his career, frustrated by his experiences as an actor, he turned to writing, producing a string of countercultural scripts including the acid movie "The Trip" and the Monkees movie "Head." Once his acting career took off, he stopped writing, and it's too bad — his scripts were terrific, smart and often satiric.
Nicholson did his work on this one, researching the Old West and stumbling on "Banditti of the Plains" by Asa Shinn Mercer, a nearly suppressed history of the Johnson County War in Wyoming. Acid Westerns are often critical of capitalism, and, if that's a theme Nicholson wanted to explore, this would be the story for it: Between 1889 and 1893, large cattle companies formed into cartels and decided to eliminate their smaller competition by declaring them rustlers and hiring men to murder them.
This story inspired almost every range war story in Western film history, especially those with hired guns fighting against less-skilled locals (most famously, "Shane" borrowed from the story). But "Ride in the Whirlwind" didn't have the sort of budget that could show a well-heeled cartel battling a posse of small ranchers, and so Nicholson stripped down the story, lifting from an account of a siege on a cabin, likely the Shootout at the KC Ranch, in which one of the besieged ranchers kept a journal right up until moments before his death, and during which a passing settler was also attacked by the hired guns.
Nicholson takes this story and focuses on this hideous injustice of it. In his version, three cowhands (Nicholson, Cameron Mitchell, and Tom Filer) hole up overnight with a group of men, unaware they just robbed a stagecoach. When the posse arrives the next day, they assume the cowhands are part of the gang, killing one immediately and then chasing the other two for the rest of the movie.
The surviving cowhands briefly hole up in the cabin of a squatting farmer family with the intention of stealing his horses to make a getaway when they have an opportunity. It goes badly, with them killing the farmer and Mitchell getting mortally wounded during the getaway.
"The Shooting" is one of the few Western movies directly inspired by existentialism and absurdist theater — his background was as a theater producer and director. "The Shooting" feels like the absurdist story of the two films, with a group of people engaged in a mysterious and ultimately pointless journey into the desert. "Ride in the Whirlwind" feels more nakedly existential, asking the value of existence in a cruel, absurd world.
And, as hinted at by the lynching of a black man early in the film, it feels essentially political. There is a long monologue by a hangman in Quentin Tarantino's "Hateful Eight" about justice that feels instructive here. (Hellman executive produced Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," by the way.) The hangman argues that the value of his profession is dispassion, because without dispassion, there is no guarantee that an execution will be just.
None of the killings in "Ride in the Whirlwind" are just. The posse don't actually know who they are after, and just attack and hang anyone that seems a likely suspect. While they do actually manage to kill the stagecoach robbers, it seems mostly a happy accident — as we see, they are more than willing to hang a trio of cowhands who just happen to be nearby.
And this pushes the cowhands toward being criminals just to survive: In order to escape the posse, they must hold a farm family hostage at gunpoint and steal their horses, which will destroy the farmer. From the moment the posse is formed, they do less to bring justice than to further injustice. They push our hapless cowpokes into becoming criminals merely to survive. And while they accidentally managed to kill a bandit when they lynched the black character, there is no question they could just as easily have lynched an innocent man.
Nicholson's script has the cowpokes as plain-spoken and unfailingly polite, even to the family they have taken captive (including Millie Perkins, another holdover from "The Shooting," here playing a frightened farm girl with occasional, surprising moments of gumption). Nicholson plays his character as boyish — he's most openly upset about the injustice of it all, and sometimes seems moments away from tatruming about it. But he's a supporting character here — the real lead is Cameron Mitchell, a cofounder of The Actors Studio and a veteran of both war and Western films.
He plays the role with quiet intelligence, but, beneath the surface, he is roiling, demonstrated by a scene where he plays checkers with Nicholson, but his attention constantly drifts, reliving the posse, the shooting, the escape. He's more levelheaded than Nicholson, but also guiltier; Nicholson shrugs off the fact that the fugitives have become criminals, blaming the posse, but Mitchell is visibly troubled by it and occasionally apologetic.
The family has no preference. They don't believe the fugitives claims of innocence, telling them that whatever they are, they are horse thieves, and that's true — they are planing to steal the family's horses. One sense the film doesn't have a preference either. Mitchell's guilt and Nicholson's lack of guilt don't affect their decisions at all. No matter how they playact at the farm, they will end up stealing horses and running from a posse.
Maybe it does matter, though. Spoiler ahead: The film ends with Mitchell, who has been shot, demanding that Nicholson leave him behind to hold off the posse. In a different film, Nicholson would refuse, and the two would go out in a blaze of glory, unjustly but honorably dead. Instead, Nicholson considers his circumstance for a moment, and, as someone who can always blame circumstances for his decisions, hops on his horse and rides away.
Mitchell climbs to a high place and distracts the posse for a few minutes, not shooting at them, but just shooting his pistol. When they find him, he's bled to death, alone and unmourned, his heroic gesture unrecognized.
In the meanwhile, Nicholson rides off. In theory, he has outrun his bad fortune, but it's hard to imagine what his future will be like. He's a product of circumstance, and, if circumstances turn against him again, he will immediately become criminal again.
And why not? The West of "Ride in the Whirlwind" is one is which law is ad hoc and unjust, and you survive by doing what you must, no matter who else it hurts. In a heartless, absurd world, you survive by being heartless and absurd.