An experienced, world weary bounty hunter, a dumb kid, a ruthless, beautiful woman, and a killer ride together out to the desert, and for the most part their motives are unclear. 1966's The Shooting clearly has answers to its mysteries and a careful viewing of the film after something is revealed in the climax show its makers knew these answers all along. At the same time, the film is far less concerned with answers than in presenting its characters divested of things that might help the audience sort them, that might give the audience an excuse to stop studying them. So the movie because a well shot, atmospheric contemplation of killing, love, loyalty, men and women, and how these things are translated into archetypes.
Willett Gashade (Warren Oates) rides into a little mining camp on a horse and with a pack mule. His gun holster is empty, something never explained. He finds the grave of his friend and his other friend, a young man named Coley (Will Hutchins), scared out of his wits. A gunshot from nowhere had killed their mutual friend and now Coley doesn't know what do with himself and is liable to panic and shoot someone. Willett does what he does most of the film--he assumes moral authority, confiscating Coley's gun and telling Coley he'll be depending on Willett from now on.
Willett certainly seems the one most worthy of being trusted with authority--though, when I say "seems" that's going to make you immediately wonder if it's true. It may or might not be but Willett clearly cares more about the horses who become exhausted than the unnamed woman (Millie Perkins) who hires Willett to take her to a place called Kingsley. She doesn't seem to care about horses or people very much, irritably dismissing any suggestion Willett makes that might slow them down, and it's not long before Willett concludes she's looking to kill someone.
But despite seeming like she very much wants to handle this killing herself, she's employed a hired gun named Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson) who, despite coming off like he has the world in the palm of his hand, clearly knows little more about the situation than Willett.
"The Woman", as she's credited, doesn't look remotely like she belongs in the 19th century, her hair, clothing, and makeup placing her in a 1960s fantasy version of the west, which is appropriate as this film feels like it's about an interpretation of legends. One could look at her as representing womankind and her presence in the world of mythologised masculinity an inherent disruption. There's a world where everything was understood and had rules--Billy and Willett clearly don't like each other but each clearly knows what to expect from the other. Willett continually warns Coley against falling in love with the Woman. The language Willett uses to talk Coley out of it involves dismissing the value and meaning of physical beauty and the perils of womankind in general. One could read this as his misogyny but the Woman and Billy clearly are dangerous and Coley may well be better off keeping clear of them. The film avoids declaring Coley's innocence or Willett's pessimism the correct response to the situation.
The Woman's insistence on riding the horses to death and her unwavering fixation on her goal manifest in an irritability that doesn't quite make sense for most of the film and reads like the typical, misogynist constructions in 1960s films, like the nagging wives of cop films, but the end of the film also destabilises that presumption.
But the differences between Willett and the Woman can be seen in another way. Most of Willett's concerns are practical--he wants to make sure they have provisions and the Woman seems foolish when she pushes her supplies off her exhausted horse even though Willett tells her it won't keep the horse going any longer, it'll just mean she doesn't have food. But is she being foolish, or has she just found something more important than living? Is such a goal foolish? And why is Willett still going along on this quest?
Every role is well cast. Warren Oates as Willett exudes weary western wisdom, Jack Nicholson of course easily pulls off ornery psychopath, Will Hutchins seems green as hell, and Millie Perkins always keeps her performance somewhere between villainous and steely. The desert looks pale and sterile, the horses look believably ragged.
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