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Clicking and Streaming: Two 'opium Westerns' from Monte Hellman

Clicking and Streaming: Two 'opium Westerns' from Monte Hellman
'The Shooting' directed by Monte Hellman

"The Shooting" / "Ride in the Whirlwind"

Directed by Monte Hellman

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Available on Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD and via Amazon and iTunes

In the '70s, the familiar aspects of the Western collided with the counter-culture, resulting in films like "El Topo," "Glen and Randa," and "Greaser's Palace." These movies, which featured absurd slapstick and anti-authoritarian themes, bent the tropes of the Western backward and were often categorized as "acid Westerns." Some precursors to the acid Western are "The Shooting" and "Ride the Whirlwind," two slow, meditative cowboy movies shot by cult director Monte Hellman (best known for "Two-Lane Blacktop," about a pointless car race between three men) simultaneously, both with an existential twist. Let's call them "opium Westerns."

"The Shooting" is dreamlike in approach. It follows two bounty hunters, Coley (Will Hutchins) and Gashade (Warren Oates), hired to accompany a woman (Millie Perkins, credited only as "Woman") across the desert. Woman turns from flirty and charming to dangerous in a matter of moments as soon as a gun is in her hand. It quickly becomes apparent to Coley and Gashade that they aren't exactly in charge and should be ready for anything (the inclusion of a strong, potentially violent female character also hints at a Western subgenre even tinier than the acid Western, "the feminist Western," best represented by Peter Fonda's "The Hired Hand"). When the trio runs into Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson), the thick tension already in the air begins to clot. Spear and Woman have a past, though it's never explained, but the result is that Gashade loses his reign as alpha male of the group. The dynamics never settle in among the group and the movie doesn't quite resolve either, and what began as a dreamlike journey turns menacing.

If "The Shooting" is a strong hit of spacy, sensibility-altering enlightenment that brings along with it, some harsh vibes, than "Ride in The Whirlwind," written by and starring Nicholson, is a sharper, unrelenting turn into darkness as you wait for the bad trip to end. Hellman gives "Whirlwind" a more realistic and gritty look appropriate for a plot that almost feels like a chase-based horror flick: Three cowboys (Cameron Mitchell, Nicholson, and Tom Filer) encounter a hanging party that mistakes them for another group and they begin running for their lives, eventually hiding in a rancher's house owned by Abigail (Perkins). No one believes the cowboys, including the rancher family they've held hostage, and being cooped up in the home only encourages paranoia, leading to a stunning moment where an innocuous game of checkers sets off a trippy flashback. Although "Whirlwind" resolves in a typically Western way, how we arrive there is what matters, and it is a Western journey like no other.

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