The Shooting

shootinghellmanRecognize the name Monte Hellman? If you’re a fan of low-budget, cult classics with some loyal fan bases, Hellman is the director for you. In 1966, Hellman shot two low-budget westerns in back-to-back fashion, Ride in the Whirlwind (flawed but pretty decent) and The Shooting. What’s the verdict? Read on.

A miner at a played-out gold mine in the middle of the desert, Willet Gashade (Warren Oates) returns to find one of his partners dead, one cowering in fear, Coley (Will Hutchins), and quickly discovers his brother has ridden out.  Coley says something happened in town with someone dying, but the story has gaps so Willet isn’t sure what truly occurred. It’s only a day later a woman (Millie Perkins) arrives at their camp offering $1,500 to the two men to travel with her to the town of Kingsley. Suspicious of her unspoken motives, Willet agrees with Coley along for the ride. What are her plans exactly? What is she up to? Willet can’t quite figure it out, but it isn’t long before he realizes a mysterious gunman (Jack Nicholson) is following behind them not too far off.

What an odd little western. Reviews dubbed it hypnotic, apocalyptic, nightmarish and any number of other artsy descriptions. Filmed on a budget of $75,000 with a ridiculously small crew, ‘Shooting’ is definitely an interesting western, just not a good one. Low-budget is rarely a deal-breaker for me, but going for a minimalist, artsy finished product instead never quite comes together unfortunately. I didn’t love Whirlwind, but I definitely liked it more than its filming twin.

There are positives. The minimalist tone works at times. This is a vacant, isolated American west. Little towns sprinkle the landscape, but blink and you’ll miss them. Few people are even there, and those that are there…not the nicest folks. Originally supposed to shoot in Monument Valley, Hellman and producer Roger Corman instead opted for Kanab, Utah. The filming locations are a bright spot, if a bleak, desolate bright spot. I liked that nightmarish story and all its potential but…

That’s all it is. Potential. With a movie that clocks in at just 82 minutes, the pacing is glacial. It…..is…..slow. The mystery is the key because we’re never quite sure what Perkins’ “Woman” character is up to. Sadly, we never truly find out. A violent incident is mentioned, but we don’t find out exactly what happened. The tension and intensity and building sense of doom is palpable, but it does not deliver. I found myself shaking my head at the ending where a casting choice seemed to be made to help the budget. I’m not the quickest person around, but when I’ve gotta research an ending and what the hell happened, that ain’t good. So as usual, my theory rings true. Is the build-up to Christmas more fun or actually opening your presents? I go for the build-up.

‘Shooting’ is undone by any number of things, but for me the biggest culprit – along with the script – is the casting/acting. I’ll watch Oates in anything, and he’s by far the best thing going here. His Willet is a cowboy, a drifter, a miner. He’s a normal guy thrust into an unpleasant situation, an anti-hero for a new type of western. It’s a far-more subdued performance than he usually gave. Why you ask? Perkins delivers one of the most shrill performances I’ve ever seen. I was actively rooting against her from the word ‘go.’ As for Hutchins’ dim-witted Coley, my goodness, what a naïve, annoying, doof of a character. You understand why Oates’ Willett is so upset. He’s got to deal with this dynamic duo throughout.

A young Nicholson is also a bright spot as a duded-up gunfighter just brimming with rage and intimidation. His Billy Spears is horrifically underwritten so we learn little more than that he likes to shoot people and beat them down. That’s the entire movie though. I don’t need everything spelled out, but something spelled out at all would be lovely.

A stinker. Steer clear.

The Shooting (1966): * ½ /****

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