Warren Oates and Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shooting’ on Max, Prime Video, Peacock, and Criterion Channel

Monte Hellman’s The Shooting (1966), an almost abstract odyssey through a harsh, desolate desert landscape, is perhaps the first genuinely existential American western.

Warren Oates stars as Willet Gashade, a former bounty hunter trying to make a go of it with his childlike partner Coley (Will Hutchins) on a patch of scrub in the middle of nowhere, when a mysterious, unnamed woman (Millie Perkins) hires him as a tracker. She already has a killer on the payroll, the sadistic, black-clad Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson), and she toys with the naïve Coley as they head into the badlands.

Hellman directs the ambiguous script by Carole Eastman (under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce) with always surprising flourishes, keeping the audience in the dark about the true nature of the odyssey as the characters talk around the conflicts as they warily eye one another. The spare cinematography burns bright and harsh in southwest sunlight that simmers the already edgy relations. Nicholson is appropriately vicious in a preening sort of way and Oates is magnetic and commanding as a man driven by some fate beyond his comprehension.

The project was a collaboration between Hellman and Nicholson, who met while making a pair of war films for Roger Corman in the Philippines. Nicholson was interested in all aspects of filmmaking, not just acting, and he and Hellman teamed up to produce a pair of low-budget westerns. They made Ride in the Whirlwind, with many of the same cast and crew members, at the same time. And though he didn’t take credit, Roger Corman was an executive producer for the film, essentially funding the project out of respect for Hellman.

The Shooting is haunting and elemental and savage, an almost abstract odyssey through a harsh, desolate desert landscape that wears its enigma proudly. It ends with more questions than answers, but it is never less than compelling.

It was well received at European film festivals but tossed into legal limbo when its European distributor went bankrupt and never received an official American theatrical release and ended up being sold directly to American TV, appearing on the big screen in revivals over the decades. In 2014, Hellman oversaw the restoration of both films.

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
The Shooting / Ride in the Whirlwind (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
The Shooting / Ride in the Whirlwind (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

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The Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD releases present both The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind from newly restored editions mastered in 4K from the original camera negatives. Director Monte Hellman provides commentary for the two films with film historians Bill Krohn and Blake Lucas and personally interviews producer Roger Corman and stars Millie Perkins and Harry Dean Stanton in new featurettes. Also includes interviews with Gary Kurtz and actor Will Hutchins and a visual essay on Warren Oates by Kim Morgan, plus a fold-out leaflet with an essay.

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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