“Did I tell you to do something?” – Billy “I don’t give a curly-hair, yellow-bear, double dog damn if you did” – Coley
Four people ride across the desert tracking a killer but it is not clear who they really are and who it is they are looking for. In Monte Hellman’s subversive western The Shooting, just released for the first time on DVD, Warren Oates is Willett Gashade, a bounty hunter turned mine owner who returns to find his brother Coin missing, his partner dead, and a fellow worker in a state of panic. When a strange woman shows up, the three set out on a journey with an unknown destination that leads to a final bizarre confrontation. The Shooting has more questions than you can find on the SAT and it is often a frustrating challenge to fit the pieces together. Hellman shot the film on a limited budget in eighteen days in the desert country near Kanab, Utah with B-movie producer Roger Corman and a young actor named Jack Nicholson.
It was released to television and did not play in the theater until years later after it developed a cult following in Europe. The quality of the transfer is impeccable but the dialogue borders on the incomprehensible. Slow-witted but good humored Coley (Will Hutchins) is fearful as he tells Gashade that he was asleep when he heard an argument between Willett’s partner Leland Drum and Coin. He says that Colin fled, and Leland was shot dead by an unseen gunman and tells Gashade something about Coin having ridden down “a man and a little person, maybe a child,” but Coley’s not sure about that. Soon, a woman (Millie Perkins) who is not named arrives and offers to pay Gashade to guide her to Kingsley, a town that lies some hours away, beyond a dangerous desert. The woman is abrasive and complaining but Coley takes to her immediately while Willett is distanced and aloof.
Mystery piles upon mystery. When the riding party sets out, the woman asks to be led in the wrong direction without offering any explanation. The woman shoots her horse claiming it was lame but it turns out have no broken bones. When asked why she shot the horse, after a long period of silence, she can only muster a feeble smile. Along the way, Coley, Willett and the woman meet up with Billy Spears (Nicholson), a nattily dressed gunman with a sadistic smirk, and it becomes apparent that the purpose of the journey may be to track down the person or persons responsible for shooting Leland. Beyond that it is anyone’s guess as to what the film means and an unforgettable climax does not clear up the confusion.
The director has said that The Shooting is a mirror of the Kennedy assassination where doubt remains about what actually happened on that day, but the connection is murky. Whatever its ultimate meaning, The Shooting is an involving ride full of twists and turns and Jack Nicholson’s mighty performance as Billy is worth the price of admission. Actually the meaning may be revealed when Gashade says to Millie, “If I heard your name I wouldn’t know it, would I?” She says, “No.” Then he says, “then I don’t see no point to it.” She says, “there isn’t any.” Perhaps like life, The Shooting doesn’t mean anything. It’s just there to grab your attention.