The Shooting (1966)

Directed by Monte Hellman

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Dread looms over everything in The Shooting.  As the sparse story is doled out over 82 minutes the shots become wider, and the music begins to take over for the dialogue, making the character’s trek feel like a slow burn, stripping away what makes them human.

There isn’t much life to begin with, but each character becomes one in the same by the end.  The mysterious gunslinger is as parched by the sun as the meek puppy dog of a sidekick.  The desert is the great equalizer, and by the end all the characters are dead or might as well be.

The ending is dreamlike and open-ended.  Though we can make sense of what we see onscreen, it is presented in such a way as to make us question whether or not any of it is real.  The answers we are given simply feel misleading, and you can picture these characters walking through the desert forever.

That’s mostly what they do, walk.  There are four main characters here, and they follow the lead of an unnamed lady who pays them each $500.  They follow the money, I suppose, as a means of survival, but none of the three men have anything better to do so they might as well follow her out of boredom.  By the end she reaches her destination, though it’s much more symbolic than literal.

It doesn’t matter where they’re headed or really if they get there.  The first two characters we meet, Will (Warren Oates) and Coley (Will Hutchins) live in the shadow of a dead friend named Leland.  When Will stumbles upon Coley in hiding, his friend shoots at him out of fear.  Will takes it upon himself to protect Coley and demands the trigger-happy nervous Nelly give him his gun.

Soon they happen upon the unnamed woman (Millie Perkins) who makes herself known when she shoots dead a horse she claims has a broken leg.  Will observes that the dead horse was previously unharmed in any way, and this only helps strengthen his resolve that the woman is nothing but bad news.

Coley, on the other hand, is smitten with her.  He would follow her off a cliff, and before the end of the film a gunslinger named Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson) will shoot him dead.  Even if he hadn’t, you figure, someone else would have.  Coley never seems long for this world, and the stress of the deadly elements will be a constant pressure over the characters throughout the story.

From the start the Millie Perkins character feels like she is leading the men down a bad path.  She offers them a lot of money for an unspecified mission, and the men know they’re being followed even before the gunslinger Spear shows up.

He is a sly man dressed in black, and he leers at Coley like a hawk circling its prey.  Despite being a sinister presence, Spear will succumb to exhaustion as he, Will and the woman stagger through the desert following the deaths of their tired horses.  Will takes this opportunity to attack him in revenge for killing Coley.

He doesn’t kill him, but soon Spear and the woman are killed by Coigne, Will’s brother played by the same actor.  Coigne is a character we never see until the end of the film but whose offscreen actions are believed to have led to Leland’s death and, in a way, put the entire plot in motion.

He’s more of a spirt than a character, something symbolic whose meaning is found in his influences on others than in his own actions.  When the film ends, following a quick and unceremonious shootout, Will can only mutter “coigne” as the shooting deaths of the woman and Spear are shown in static images.  It’s as if any fluidity in the story breaks down aesthetically just as Will’s grasp on reality does.

Maybe Coigne isn’t even real, or maybe Will sees all this death as a sign of his own destructive force.  All around him, throughout the entire film, is death.  His friends die, his horses die, and they stagger through the dry, unsupporting desert landscape that threatens their lives even were it not for their own capability for violence.

I’ve never seen a film with as bleak as an ending as this one that refuses to dwell in its own bleakness.  The end comes quickly, and the relative silence of the final action suggests an uncaring quality of the world and the film for these characters.  Their deaths aren’t tragic but inevitable, like horses put down with a quick shot to the head.

Up Next: Ida (2013), The Shining (1980), Me & Earl & the Dying Girl (script only)

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