Beckett and the Stetson (Comment c’est), "perishing to the tricks of my own mind." At once stark and humorous, Monte Hellman’s existentialism is evidenced in a marvelously peculiar early scene: The former bounty hunter (Warren Oates) sits by his tent, squinting straight ahead with coffee cup in hand while the skittish prospector (Will Hutchins) warbles "When the Work’s All Done This Fall" in the far background, something’s amiss, the camera leisurely turns 90° as a sudden gunshot sends the sidekick scuttling through a cloud of spilled flour. (The cowboy intently ponders the vacant hilly horizon, is distracted for a second by a vulture and then beholds a feminine figure in the distance.) The sulky gamine in black (Millie Perkins), unnamed and unreadable, the spark of the trudging journey into the desert. Jack Nicholson as the hired gunslinger completes the abstruse quartet, entering like Palance in Shane and last seen à la Greed. "It’s a feelin’ I got to see through," mumbles Oates on the edge of the sandy void, trying to find a justification for the morbid pull. Pared to the bone yet luxuriantly phantasmagoric, Hellman’s superb frontier cryptogram charts a trek through a circular, increasingly lunar landscape. The depleted horse under the blasting sun, the solitary makeshift grave, the desperado’s shattered hand: an exhaustive winnowing of classic Western themes into surrealistic signposts, a genre’s "whips and jingles" arranged as if in a dream. Reportedly envisioned as a disorientating mirror of the decade’s political assassinations, this is a crossroads of old and new myths where characters flicker gradually from irritable ramrods into projections of haunted states. Striped candy for the dying and snake eggs in stagnant water, the self encountered (cf. Bertolucci’s Partner). Fantastically concentrated, ultimately closer to Frost than to Sartre, and the heat-cracked realm out of which Jarmusch and Almereyda and Reichardt ride. Cinematography by Gregory Sandor. With Charles Eastman, Guy El Tsosie, Brandon Carroll, and B.J. Merholz.
--- Fernando F. Croce