Bounty hunter Willett Gashade (Warren Oates) returns to the mine where he has been trying to make an honest buck, only when he ties up his horse and mule, he notices a grave - the grave of his old friend who he had left behind to tend the site. Then someone starts shooting at him. He dives for cover, and sees that the would-be assassin is his other friend Coley (Will Hutchins) who stops firing when he realises who he is aiming for. Soon, Will has the story from him - someone gunned down their companion and he didn't see who it was. But then a new character enters the tale...
The Shooting has been impressing and infuriating viewers for decades now, a deliberately confounding western which builds with inexorable dread to a climax which has had more than one person scratching their heads. It was one of two westerns directed by Monte Hellman for Roger Corman in the mid-sixties, the other being Ride in the Whirlwind, although this was the better thought of especially in Europe where it played in Paris for a whole year. In contrast, it was barely released in the United States, and its reputation from abroad had only mustered up a cult following rather than the fame its adherents thought it deserved.
But really, with an ending like that it was never going to be anything more than a cult movie, not to mention the fact that for the rest of the running time this is willfully hard to follow, with muttered dialogue and plot developments which are easy to miss on first viewing. The character who is introduced after Coley explains to Will what has occured so far is never named, but she is played by Millie Perkins, even at that time most famous for playing Anne Frank in the film of the diary. She offers Will a substantial amount of money, more that he can make in the mine, to help her get to a town across the desert, although she obviously has an alternative plan which she is not letting on to him about.
Will agrees, even though she has an extremely prickly personality and they waste no time in getting down to arguing. Coley tags along as well, and off they go across the plains, except that the woman wants to stop off at a nearby town first, where they learn that someone has killed a young boy there. That someone is the key to the plot, as it turns out Will knows him well, leading up to that confrontation for the finale which has been the source of so much bafflement since. But don't go thinking the ending is all the film is about, as leading up to it is a succession of increasingly menacing twists, as if all the main characters are heading towards a showdown that they cannot escape.
One of those main characters was played by Jack Nicholson, here also acting as producer of the film, appearing as the sinister Billy Spear, first glimpsed as a mysterious silhouette on the horizon, until Will works out that the woman keeps firing off shots seemingly at random to in fact send signals to their pursuer. He does catch up with them and provides backup to her in the face of the two grumbling bounty hunters, but it doesn't take much to realise how destructive their relationships will be, mainly to each other. If nothing else, The Shooting is an illustration of how to do a lot with very little, as this was a very low budget effort and the way that they ended up filming most of it in the bleak landscape seems innovative as it saved money as well as supplying the ideal setting. Whether you grasp what is going on or not, and even if you do there are still questions which go unanswered, this all feeds into what amounts to an enigma that may reward the patient. Music by Richard Markowitz.
"Existential" is a word often used to describe the films of this American director, who after working for Roger Corman on Beast from Haunted Cave, Back Door to Hell and The Terror directed two cult westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind. In the 1970s he continued his cult acclaim with Two Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter and China 9 Liberty 37, but come the 80s the directing work dried up, with only Iguana and Silent Night, Deadly Night 3 to his name. He also worked behind the scenes on The Wild Angels, Robocop and Reservoir Dogs, among others.