Click here for the introduction and the first review in my Jack Nicholson Retrospective.
Despite the fact that we’re now eight movies (plus multiple TV appearances and movie cameos) into the Jack Nicholson retrospective, it seems that Nicholson was still a struggling actor. Though he had been acting for 10 years by this point, there was still the risk that no one would see his work. Case in point: The Shooting. A film that would never receive a theatrical release in the United States. Instead it would only play at a few film festivals before being released direct to television.
Despite the indifference, those who saw The Shooting (the fourth collaboration between director Monte Hellman and Nicholson) seem to have responded positively. In fact, it’s most notable for the fact that this is arguably the first film where you see Nicholson inhabit a truly frightening character. Undoubtedly it was a mere prelude to what the world would see in the decades to come.
Willet Gashade (Warren Oates) and his friend Coley (Will Hutchins) are staying at a small mining camp when they hear a gunshot. Seemingly fired by an unnamed young woman (Millie Perkins) who was putting her injured horse out of its misery, the two men invite her back to their camp.
But the young woman has other ideas, instead offering them $1000 to escort her to a desolate place called Kingsley. Despite much questioning, she refuses to tell them why she wishes to travel there. However, in spite of their suspicions, both men accept the deal and set out with her on a deadly journey.
From various conversations over the years, I have realised that a lot of people wonder how on earth the western was the dominant genre in American film-making for nearly 60 years. But what these people forget is that said genre was often just a backdrop in order to tell other types of stories. Case in point: 1973’s Westworld. On the surface it has the trappings of a cowboy tale, but it is fundamentally a story of science-fiction.
The Shooting is much the same. Though, like most westerns, it starts with the simple image of a man and his horse; the film’s tone actually hews far closer to a dark thriller. For example, rather than great plains of America beckoning to be explored, here the vast emptiness is presented as bleak and dangerous. As such, through the effective use of sound and light, Hellman always makes sure there is a sense of unease permeating every scene.
Written by Carole Eastman (also her debut screenplay), the script is surprisingly adapt in its low-budget-ness. With few characters, technically one location and only a minutiae of dialogue, the entire production is almost a masterclass in getting the most bang for your buck.
Indeed, this production must have been an actor’s wet dream. Because of the minimal dialogue, much of the heavy lifting is done by the foursome’s performances. The battle between Oates and Perkins’ characters is especially engrossing, with the ever increasing hatred from the former towards the latter told through nothing more than mere expression.
That said, the lack of answers can occasionally get frustrating. Yes, there’s meant to be a mystery, which is why a viewer might stick with the film longer than others. But the actual resolution is a somewhat sudden arrival, and still leaves many major questions unanswered.
The more eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that Mr Nicholson was omitted in the above synopsis. Mainly that’s because he doesn’t even appear until 45 minutes into the movie. Playing the mysterious character of Billy Spear, his entrance is fairly unstated, appearing almost magically out of the darkness.
Clad largely in black, this is blatantly the first role where Nicholson got to truly tap into the dark side of the human psyche. Though mostly silent, he is a constant foreboding threat. There are even some outstanding moments where his presence becomes almost unnervingly psychological.
But there’s also a sick sort of pleasure, as Nicholson’s character seems to relish in the suffering of his compatriots. It truly is an impressive achievement, as well as being a close second to his best performance (so far) in The Raven.
A complex piece of work, The Shooting is quite the engrossing piece of cinema. Despite the fact that its conclusion is slightly unfulfilling, there’s still something to appreciate in this atmospheric portrayal of a perturbing America.
Next Time: A Review of Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)