Monte Hellman’s West opens on a stagecoach, naturally, only the wagon here is a distant speck contemplated by a pair of bandits atop a crumby, shrubby hill, the first of countless fresh perspectives. The ensuing robbery -- outlaw grousing about his carbuncle, dozing passenger roused by gun blast, log leisurely dragged away from the trail -- beautifully announces the style as a procession of haikus; the camera pans left with three saddle tramps on spooked horses and then dollies back to reveal a body dangling from a noose. (Their dialogue is pure sagebrush Beckett: "Two, three days. Oh?" "Yeah, something like that. This ain’t no country to be set afoot." "Man gets hanged.") A posse can’t tell cowhand from desperado, the conventional hero figure (Tom Filer) is promptly killed, the weathered wrangler (Cameron Mitchell) and the sardonic sidekick (Jack Nicholson) push through the Utah landscape with the vigilantes right behind. Where Dwan in Silver Lode tackles McCarthyite persecution as a pursuit in a flag-festooned hamlet, Hellman envisions the fallout of guilt by association as a spectral march into the barren valley. Holed up in a tiny farmhouse with a sullen ingénue (Millie Perkins) and her parents, the fugitives pass the time playing checkers, listening to the iambic pentameter of an off-screen hatchet smacking into a tree stump, and coming face to face with the utter loneliness of their lives. It all ends in bullets and melancholia, Nicholson vanishing in a dusty cloud to become the gunfighter he was accused of being, maybe the one who haunts The Shooting. (Viewed from a rectangular window inside the outlaws’ darkened cabin, the images of horses and shootouts irresistibly evoke a Western projected inside a dilapidated theater.) The play of genre tropes and elemental trances suggests Werner Herzog directing Randolph Scott, Mallarmé’s "memories of horizons" (Toast Funèbre), and, as always with Hellman, an astringent naturalism forever on the verge of the hallucinatory. Cinematography by Gregory Sandor. With Harry Dean Stanton, Katherine Squire, George Mitchell, Rupert Crosse, John Hackett, and B.J. Merholz.
--- Fernando F. Croce