From one angle, as Phillip Strick’s Sight and Sound1 review pointed out, The Shooting (Monte Hellman,1966) can be viewed as a classic revenge Western with the gender roles reversed. A woman, angered by the possibly accidental death of a (her?) child, enlists the help of the presumed murderer’s brother who unknowingly tracks his escape route, culminating in a classic showdown that results in death. The plot is replete with Western archetypes of vengeance, triumphant heroism and greed; which when sprinkled with camaraderie, romance and sun-kissed splendour, has all the ingredients for a successful Western. It’s just that Monte Hellman is interested in none of those things.

For one, the classic narrative is deliberately skewered by shifting the lens to the brother, Willett Gashade (Warren Oates). The woman’s (Millie Perkins) name is never revealed, her casual cruelty and chilling presence rendering her an agent of death. She approaches Willett with cash to track someone, but refuses to divulge any information. Willett accepts, but only on the condition that his garrulously simple-minded friend, Coley (Will Hutchins), can come along with them. As they travel along sparsely-populated landscapes, scouring it for horse tracks, the woman cunningly fires shots in the air to indicate their presence to her hired killer, Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson), whose menacing presence is felt throughout the narrative before he is finally revealed. Hellman retains the mystery of the woman’s purpose until the end, and even the ending doesn’t clarify the mystifying peculiarities of the sinister narrative. The film doesn’t exactly eschew Western tropes – it retains their presence only to show their pointlessness in the face of an unforgiving landscape that vapourises all myths before they crystallise.

The film’s destabilisation of Western myths and emphasis on the protagonist’s struggles has led many critics to dub it an “existential western”, a loaded term that elucidates some of its themes even as it simplifies them. Hellman suffuses the narrative with existential dread through his frequent filming of the desert landscapes, leading some critics to draw comparisons to Antonioni’s modernist ambiguities. While these comparisons aren’t unwarranted, there is a primal fear engendered by the harshness of the desert, which is absent in Antonioni’s films or other existential works. The landscapes are far more enervating than alienating, and this makes The Shooting a survivalist fable as much as an existential western. The transposition of Beckett, Hellman’s favourite author2, to the infinite vastness of the desert allows Hellmann to underscore the absurdity wrought from mere survival as much as that wrought  from purposefulness. However, the retention of Western tropes and their subsequent subversion also makes the film a powerful critique of American myths and morals. This is not to say that an existential western cannot encompass these, but the emphasis on the existential might overshadow the critical and temporal aspects.

Traditionally, the vast expanses of the Western landscape served as the ideal battleground for the final showdowns of the heroes. The figures might be dwarfed by the magnificence of the landscape, but their triumphant victories or martyrdom can only be reflected through low-angle shots situated amidst empty spaces of rocky terrain, a hallowed ground fit only for the skilled and the brave. The emptiness of the terrain encompasses the large-heartedness of the heroes, leaving no space for mere mortals. Mythicising these landscapes consecrates the glorious battles of heroes – the only living reminder of the myths that were forged in the creation of the West.

However, The Shooting dispels these myths by merely rendering the desert as it is – an unrelenting hellscape with no exits, only fleeting moments of relief provided through sparsely populated outposts. The endless frontier imposes its authority on the weak inhabitants, rendering their ugly gunfights and mounting deaths as mere figures on a landscape battling for measly scraps. Comforts are few and far between, so much so that much-needed respites are regarded with suspicion. The creeping of the whispering wind, generally a hallowed precursor to the showdown, manifests as a sign of eerie foreboding. Though the breeze might provide some relief from the excruciating heat, Willett and the film treat it as a harbinger of doom. Unnatural sounds, which include horse and human movements, are immediately suspect, and the film accentuates this feeling through its unnerving sound design. The interminability of the desert engenders almost unlimited visibility that hinders any concealment – one can run, but never hide. And even if one vanishes from the limits of visibility, they can’t stay hidden for long – their ineradicable tracks will rat them out as the desert saps their vitality.

  In the face of such unrelenting hostility, Hellman laughs at the absurdity of human norms when the battle is for survival, extending his critique of film westerns further. Coley embodies these old-fashioned values of friendship and romance, which is why the film portrays him as slow-witted, a man unable to adapt to the ruthlessness of the situation. His bumbling awkwardness is often the source of the film’s (cruel) absurdist humour, and the only hint we get of the child’s murder is through Coley’s unreliable babbling, further exacerbating the unknowability of the situation. His efforts at friendship and camaraderie are treated as a liability, and this is literalised when he uncomfortably squeezes himself  onto the curved edges of Willet’s saddle after giving up his horse to the woman out of love for her. His innocent romance is met with cruel taunts from the woman, but he persists, and this love is not only the cause of his downfall, but also results in Willet’s subjugation under Billy Spear. 

Willet, on the other hand, is very perceptive to the situation, but even he expresses cluelessness at times. He confronts the situation even if he suspects sinister intent, not out of any sense of machismo, but out of an almost existential resignation to the absurdity of the task. Willet suspects murder at the end of the journey, but refuses to withdraw out of a morbid fascination to see the events through to their natural conclusion. The film wisely refuses to divulge any information which Willet doesn’t know, thereby goading us to partake in its torrid odyssey with the same morbid impulses as Willet’s. Unlike Camusian existentialism, acceptance and death are not two options in the desert, but two sides of the same coin, and this is superbly realised through the temporally fractured ending as Willet’s brother is revealed to be his doppelganger, and his death is met by Willet with an almost calm resignation.

The mysteriousness of the ending lends itself to the interpretation that film is a chilling exteriorisation of Willet’s troubled psyche, and Hellman’s assured direction ensures that this doesn’t come across as pretentious. His dogged refusal to state his themes ensures a creeping intensity of macabre disquiet, and this emotion sustains the film even if we fully can’t grasp the extent of his themes. Jonathan Rosenbaum perceptively called the film “ the best Western Alain Resnais never made”3 June 2006.], and Hellman’s preoccupations with time and memory only serve to heighten the existential dread while, like Resnais, he reconfigures a much-loved Hollywood genre to effectively critique it. 

The first encounter with the woman shows Hellman’s mastery of cinematic time. The ominous wind alerts Willet to something sinister, and then a gunshot fired into the air causes Coley to scramble for shelter as Willet remains firmly rooted to the ground. This is followed by a protracted scene in which Hellman, with multiple shots of Willet, Coley and the landscape, amplifies the sense of unease as we wait for her imminent arrival. Once Coley discerns that the intruder is a woman, he, unlike Willett, immediately shakes off his fears as the woman sardonically looks down at them from her horse. But instead of intensifying the confrontation further, Hellman immediately deflates it with an abrupt jump cut showing the woman next to Willet, eliding over the events in-between. This tendency to protract and elide finds echoes throughout the film, where Hellman conjures an atmosphere of dread only to deflate it with a sudden acceptance of the situation. Through this temporal scrambling, Hellman accomplishes a reflection of Willet’s own existential struggle, which alternates between fear and acceptance, two conflicting thoughts that ultimately collide at the ending. 

Even though death continually figures in the narrative, the violence is depicted awkwardly through most of the film. The only ‘professional’ killing in the vein of traditional Westerns results in Coley’s death, which is brought about by Billy Spear’s quick draw and pinpoint accuracy. But this death arises only because of Coley’s foolish machismo, as he clumsily confronts Spear despite Willet’s insistent warnings to tread carefully with him. Even though the trio abandon him after he gives up his horse, Coley scrounges the desert for another horse, desperate to get back to the action, an act of reckless heroism that signs his death sentence. Through his death by re-enactment of classic Western tropes, Hellman obliquely critiques the macho-centric violence of Westerns, with the gloried deaths only being the result of pointless audacity.

The rest of the violent acts, though, are remarkable in their non-remarkability, and this awkwardness paved the way for two post-western masterpieces which also de-mythicised the landscape – Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995) and Meek’s Cutoff  (Kelly Reichardt, 2010). The gun’s status as the terrifying totem of  the Western’s mythos is constantly questioned, and it acquires a chilling ferocity only in the hands of Billy Spear. The woman gleefully fires shots in the air with a clownish absurdity, treating it as some sort of fetishized toy for most of the film. Willett, on the other hand, is frightfully cautious with his gun, and even overcomes Spear’s frightful grip only though a gawky fistfight. Barring Coley’s death, the only instance of shooting occurs at the climax, and Hellman ensures that he completely disengages from the gratuitous pleasures of a showdown here, only to substitute it with something far more ambiguous. 

The final showdown between the woman and Willett’s brother is filmed in a coarse-grained fashion, blurring the action as Hellmann fractures time through disorienting slow-motions. The utter confusion emerging from the shootout perhaps reflects Willet’s own confusion, and Hellman only gradually improves the clarity as the fight progresses, finally revealing the brother’s face. If any semblance of plot was emerging from the narrative, Hellman only accentuates the doubt further. 

By denying us the closure of a conventional showdown, Hellman effectively dismantles American myths and the much-cherished values that emerge from such myths. Willet’s gaze alternates between his brother and the woman, registering neither of them clearly, leaving us with a mish-mash of disembodied sounds and blurry images. Hellman directly places us in Willet’s headspace, unable to process the flurry of events, with Willett subsequently replaying them in slow motion in his efforts to understand what’s going on, only to be further discombobulated. The avoidance of a wide-angle shot of a high-noon gunfight, in addition to the awkward delineation of violence, serves to draw attention to how myths can only be constructed and not observed because the sensorial overload makes it impossible to even think of a gunfight as anything other than awkward.

Even if the ending speaks about some sort of a tortured identity struggle, which I think it does, Hellman staunchly refuses to disclose any details. Is this a rumination on vengeance in a landscape that couldn’t give one whit about our petty concerns and morals? Or is Willett trying to establish an identity to escape the drudgery of his previous job, ultimately settling on some kind of acceptance on the futility of such aspirations? Whatever it might be, Hellman’s narratives are rife with such ambiguities that the film could be powerful even if we were to neglect the existential aspects. 

I don’t look to deny the film’s existential concerns, and I even consider the term “existential Western” to be useful. However, I think it does a disservice to the film’s ambiguities, critiques of Westerns, and the primal fear that accompanies its existentialism, which is why I said that Rosenbaum’s description is more perceptive. If we were to saddle the film with a descriptive, the good old-fashioned avant-garde might be more appropriate. Even though Hellman was an avowed Beckettian, his transposition of existential themes to the desert leads it to mutate to an incomprehensible phantasm that blends primitive survivalism with existentialism. Feelings of purposelessness don’t matter here, as indicated by an absurd scene involving a character stranded in the middle of the desert with his horse. Trading information and his horse for water with Coley, his only goal is to survive. Questions about the pointlessness of actions might arise, but when faced with hellish fury, the lines between purpose and survival are significantly blurred.

The Shooting


  1. Strick, Phillip. The Shooting. Sight and Sound. 1st January 1971.
  2. Stevens, Brad. Monte Hellman: His Life and Films. Jefferson, North Carolina : McFarland & Co, 2002.
  3. Rosenbaum, Jonathan. A Dozen Eccentric Westerns. DVD Beaver. [Online

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