Will (Warren Oates, at right), a former bounty hunter, returns to his camp to find his simple-minded buddy Coley (Will Hutchins, pictured below) cowering in fear in his tent: someone shot their buddy Leland Drum to death at the campfire. Now Will's brother Coigne has vanished—he and Drum may have been involved in the accidental death of a child in town. Will realizes that he's been followed to the camp, and indeed a woman in a black hat (Millie Perkins) arrives soon after. She explains that she's following someone but has had to shoot her injured horse and now needs a horse and a guide to keep going. She rather arrogantly demands that Will and Coley accompany her, and even though Will realizes that the horse she shot wasn't actually injured, they agree to help her. Will also picks up on the fact that the woman is signaling their presence to someone, and soon that someone shows up, a hired gun named Billy (Jack Nicholson). Relations between the four are a bit frosty and even tense, with Billy constantly at odds with Coley, and Will trying to keep things smoothed out. Eventually when the woman's horse goes lame, she takes Coley's horse and makes him stay behind in the burning hot desert. Will seems to sense that this journey will not end well for any of them, and he's right.
This is often referred to as an "existential Western" and by golly if it ain't. The plot outline is recognizably drawn from Western movie motifs—revenge, gunfights, lone woman in the company of men, wandering cowboys—and the landscapes (shot in Arizona) are just as lovely and foreboding as in any John Ford film. But aside from the laying out of a skeletal plot, nothing much really happens, and certainly, with the exception of Will, the characters don't get developed to any degree. It is often remarked upon that the director, Monte Hellman, had directed a stage version of Waiting for Godot in a Western setting before he made this film, and while this isn't as vague as Godot, there are similarities in the sense that people are waiting for something to happen and it doesn't happen. Except here, the people don’t wait in one place, they keep moving, and ultimately something does happen in the last five minutes, so fans of plot-driven narratives (most of us) will not be totally stymied, even if we never get a full recitation of the backstory of the characters. Oates is the main reason to stick with the film—he gives a grounding performance that gives us something to hang on to in this desolate, meaningless universe, um, I mean, in the lonely desert. Hutchins, probably best known for the 60s TV Western Sugarfoot, is surprisingly good in the "juvenile" role. Perkins is a bit stiff and artificial; Nicholson is Nicholson.
Hellman shot another Western back to back with this one, RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND, with Nicholson and Perkins (Jack also wrote the screenplay). It shares a similar tone of uncertainty with THE SHOOTING but while it has a somewhat more traditional story, it's also less interesting. Cameron Mitchell and Nicholson are two cowboys on the run, mistakenly assumed to be part of a group of outlaws. They take refuge with an isolated family (Perkins is the daughter) and try to hold out there while the law passes by. There is more gunplay here than in THE SHOOTING, but despite having a more coherent plot, it feels longer and harder to get through. The two films are available on a nice Criterion DVD set. [DVD]