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Existential.

There. I typed it. And henceforth that word, long since rendered impotent, will not be used in this discussion of Monte Hellman’s lean, crafty and neglected Western The Shooting. OK, maybe one more time, but just to make a point.

Blücher!
Blücher!

Hellman springs the narrative tension immediately. The movie opens on a close-up of a horse, which stirs nervously in response to a distant sound; the equine’s owner, Willett Gashade (the inimitable Warren Oates), suspects he is being followed, inscrutably slices open a sack of flour packed on the horse, then hurries to the mining camp where he expects to meet his provocatively named brother, Coigne (pronounced “coin”), and their two partners. He instead finds a seemingly abandoned site and a hastily carved tombstone memorializing one of the men.

After facing a paranoid barrage of gunfire from the group’s sole remainder, the naïve Coley (Will Hutchins), Gashade learns that his brother shot someone, possibly a child, in a nearby town. Coigne and their cohort Leland were pursued by gunmen to the camp, from which Coigne escaped into the desert, at which Coley hid in his tent, and at the campfire of which Leland was shot dead.

Coley-flour. Get it?
Coley-flour.

The following day, in a scene that employs the mystifying sack of flour to comic effect, a nearby gunshot startles Gashade and Coley. The shooter is the refined, stone-faced Woman (Millie Perkins), bad news who extends Gashade an offer he probably should have refused. But then we would not have this taut little Western with its intriguing conclusion and ample opportunities to fire up the “E” brand.

Jack Nicholson, sexistential in black leather.
Jack Nicholson, sexistential in black leather.

The Shooting, recently the subject of a welcome Criterion Collection release, receives due attention for Jack Nicholson’s early role as a black-clad gun-for-hire and its evocative climax, in which Hellman slows and fragments an assassination. But the film’s effectiveness is rooted in the screenplay by Carole Eastman, writing under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce, who knew both Hellman and Nicholson, and who would go on to cowrite and receive an Academy Award nomination for 1970’s Five Easy Pieces.

Eastman’s spare script is grim and wry, and the enigmatic dialogue fuels speculation, though the film’s outcome progressively feels inevitable. “My mind’s all unsatisfied with it,” Gashade mutters after hearing Coley’s account of Coigne’s crime and subsequent disappearance. As the Woman’s deadly intentions come into focus, and they become clear to the viewer much sooner than to Gashade, Gashade attributes his decision to guide her into forbidding, unknown territory as “just a feeling I got to see through” (but does he really have a choice?). Even the silence speaks volumes.

The movie’s ‘unequalled climax’ may not be as surprising as advertised, but it is worth discussing over pie and coffee, my friend Jason’s well-stated measure of a good film.
The movie’s “unequalled climax” may not be as surprising as advertised, but it is worth discussing over pie and coffee, my friend Jason’s measure of a good film.

And what of The Shooting’s infamous, climactic shooting? The movie leaves plenty to puzzle over, and its tantalizing loose ends have ignited a diarrheic outpouring of that ostentatious, all-purpose modifier, the aforementioned “E” word. The great William Safire tackled the scope of the term, its associated philosophical movement, and its questionable geopolitical use in a 2007 On Language column for The New York Times.

I agree with David Lechman that the word is misused and overused; in criticism, it’s a lazy catch-all for artistic enigmas. Think about the actual definitions: “adj. 1. pertaining to existence 2. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of existentialism.” Now consider this dictionary description of the previous sentence’s final word: “a philosophical movement … that stresses the individual’s position as a self-determining agent responsible for his or her own choices.”

The breadth of meaning encompassed in those terms is almost limitless, as panoramic as the horizon in southern Utah where The Shooting was filmed. Consciously or not, countless poems, plays, movies, songs and paintings express themes related to the “E” word and its “-ism” form, terms with such big meanings but which are brandished with so little restraint. Wielding The Word That Shall Not be Named effectively requires context, which in turn requires thought beyond dropping a term that proves you took a basic philosophy course in college.

What do you think of the concept of 'inescapable freedom'?
What do you think of the concept of “inescapable freedom”?

While The Shooting’s trajectories invite exploration, sometimes it’s more rewarding to ask the Big Questions than to know the answers. Hellman himself seems wary of delving into subtext and is dismissive of vague labels (the film has also been painted with the broad stroke of “metaphysical”).

“These are simply questions which we can’t answer, but they are not necessarily mysterious,” said Hellman of the movie’s dangling threads, as quoted in Brad Stevens’ informative book Monte Hellman: His Life and Films. “They are just facts we don’t have access to.”

While Hellman embraces the “E” word in theoretical terms, he also grasps its expansive applications. “Even if you believe in determinism you’re living an existential life,” he observed in an interview cited in Stevens’ book. “You’re an existentialist whether you know it or not.”

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