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  • Jacob Knight

Ex-sentials: The Hired Hand (1971)

The success of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) is habitually cited as the beginning of the New Hollywood boom – an epoch in which a flailing American system started valuing artists’ creative visions above all else. Easy Rider also enabled Hopper and his co-writer/producer/star Peter Fonda a level of freedom they hadn’t previously experienced, courtesy of a newly formed “independent” arm of Universal Studios. With over fifty years of hindsight, it’s a fairly standard move on Universal’s part, as the suits were once again looking to ride the wave of a new trend. The “hippie youth picture” had grabbed the zeitgeist by its patchouli-stinking Country Joe and the Fish t-shirt, turned the poor ‘Nam protestor upside down, and looked to shake whatever pennies it had left out of the pockets of its stonewashed jeans.

Sadly (for the studio, at least), the counterculture wasn’t exactly ready to be commercialized. Hopper took Universal’s money and high-tailed it to Peru, ingesting every drug he could find along the way, screwed a bunch, lost his mind, and made The Last Movie (1971), an experimental, dusty anti-narrative that explores the very nature of the creative process, plus the toll it takes on both the artist’s soul, as well as the environment that surrounds them. Needless to say, Uni didn’t get it; though the nigh endless footage Hopper brought back from the desert not only yielded a brilliant work of personal expression (again, retrospectively), but also a captivating avant-garde documentary in L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller’s The American Dreamer (1971).

Meanwhile, one of American cinema’s true pioneers – leathery Jack Nicholson co-conspirator, Monte Hellman, whose meandering, soul-searching genre exercises, Ride the Whirlwind and The Shooting (both 1966), set the template for this brand of poignant nuevo artiste investigation – recruited folk singer James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer/Charles Manson enthusiast Dennis Wilson for Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). A scorched earth exploration of the ‘60s death knell filtered through the lens of illegal drag racing, Hellman’s stark drive-in masterpiece dared to not give a shit who actually won any of the races. No, the true beauty was discovered in the desolation of the United States, as we learn that, though some satisfactions may be permanent, no pink slip can fill the spiritual void these nameless drivers and mechanics will continue to expand until they’ve run out of rubber to burn.

Perhaps uncoincidentally, Captain America also found himself at a crossroads. Just as his biker cohort had decided to reinvent the Western in his own psychedelic image, Peter Fonda headed to New Mexico during the Summer of 1970 to shoot The Hired Hand (1971), his gorgeous, contemplative stroke of painterly genius. Working from a script penned by Scottish novelist and future Night Moves (1975) scribe Alan Sharp and co-starring Warren Oates, the performative glue that kept a good number of pictures from this era together thanks to his mere presence, The Hired Hand is analogous to The Last Movie in that it zeroes in on the caustic virility that often fueled not only traditional Westerns, but much of the reformative movement they involuntarily became the founding fathers of. Predictably, nobody wanted that, causing the film to violently flop before vanishing into obscurity, only to be resurrected decades later via an early aughts Director’s Cut.

Many critics often refer to The Hired Hand as Fonda’s “acid Western”, though there’s zero Joker tabs in sight. Instead, it’s the way scenes don’t really transition, but rather bleed into one another, melding relative newcomer Vilmos Zsigmond’s honey-dipped, lens-flared prairie compositions into a whelming montage of melancholy regret. As their whippersnapper cohort, Dan Griffen (Robert Pratt), bursts from the river like a born-again baby, Harry Collings (Fonda) plaintively fishes while Arch Harris (Oates) stokes the fire for supper. The kid entices Arch with dinnertime dreams of heading West to California, where all the women are “half-Mex/half-Merican”, and the ocean stretches on as far as any rolling hills this trio have ever seen. Yet we instantly get the feeling Harry wants nothing to do with the ambitions of young men, as seven years of riding have learnt him that manifest destiny is merely a fool’s errand, propagated by a country of powerful men with money to fall back on, should they fail the first time. Fonda has long been the avatar for the outsider, and Harry Collings is no different.

Instead, Harry yearns to return home to Hannah (Verna Bloom) and Janey (Megan Denver), the wife and daughter he abandoned for this rough terrain. Arch isn’t so sure that’s the best idea, as the fact his buddy’s even got a family was a mystery until mere minutes ago. What if they don’t want Harry back? And what if he and Hannah have become totally different people during the seven years they’ve been apart? Harry acknowledges he was but a foolish boy, ten years his wife’s junior when they first came together, and unquestionably unfit for marriage at that time. But folks change, as do their preferred comforts. “It’s just a waste living like this, Arch,” he says, “and it’s been building up for quite a while.” The folly of youth blossoms into unshakable regret that, in all likelihood, Harry cannot requite.

Regardless of the movie’s languid aesthetic, Sharp’s screenplay still adheres to some semblance of genre convention. After watching a young girl’s body get caught in Harry’s fishing line – an on-the-nose visual metaphor that sets the tone for what’s come – the three cowboys ride into a Nowheresville ghost town, quickly finding themselves at the mercy of bespectacled sociopath McVey (Severn Darden) and his henchmen, Luke (Ted Markland) and Mace (Owen Orr). The outlaws off Dan after plotting to steal the kid’s horse, but didn’t count on Harry being so crafty, as he sets out on a bout of early morning revenge, giving the leader a horrid case of bullet-inflicted foot stigmata for his gang’s sins before the horsemen gallop out of town.

Upon arriving at his former dilapidated homestead, Janey doesn’t recognize her father, while Hannah shoos the child inside and poses a simple question to her former man. “Why’d you come back?” she asks, to which Harry stoically replies: “got tired of the life.” There are no hysterics or histrionics, as Hannah accepts this truth with the same maturity that probably caused Harry to flee in the first place. Her ex admits he doesn’t expect Hannah to take him back, and offers to act as the ranch’s hired hand, so that he can at least be of some service to the woman he hurt all those years ago. Hannah gracefully accepts and, along with Arch, the now retired cowboy adopts his new duties: hauling wood and repairing fences before making supply runs into town, where the local folk don’t recognize his face, either. To these dusty denizens, he’s an anonymous ghost, having allegedly passed away years ago, leaving Hannah a forlorn widow.

In fairness, even after the couple are reunited, we’re never truly sure how they ever thought their relationship could work in the first place. Fonda inhabits Harry with a sinewy, haggard lonesomeness, his tired eyes hollow from days that turned into weeks that turned into months that turned into years; a never-ending road whose only bounty was Arch’s gruff wisdom. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Bloom who, for all her soft curves and candid sexuality, owns a commanding demeanor seemingly carved out of granite. Here is a woman who knows what it’s like to be left with nothing to her name, picking up the pieces as she grieves a man who might as well be dead, while raising their child in an environment where barely any security can be found amidst rural poverty. None of this is spoken, mind you. Instead, we infer it from gazes into the middle distance and words left floating between silent spaces, destined to go unarticulated (though not necessarily unheard).

Yet The Hired Hand’s transcendent center is Oates, who never allows Arch to become a passive observer of these domestic trials. Rather, the cowboy is another member of the fractured Collings clan – a warm, chummy, adopted uncle who dispenses common sense platitudes as if he just plucked them out of the ether, becoming a tarnished knight errant for both his partner and the woman he may be silently pining for against his best judgement. Oates was easily one of the most gifted actors of his generation, and Arch Harris ranks with Lyle Gorch and Bennie in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) as his finest performative hours. Nobody represented the weary tenderness of a lost soul quite like Oates, and upon his death in 1982, the world of screen acting never recovered.

The most challenging aspect of The Hired Hand arrives around the midway mark, as the helpful pair ride into town, and a drunk ribs Arch about how Hannah sleeps with every man she’s ever hired. What begins as misogynistic slut shaming actually gives way to Fonda digging into Harry’s own insecurities and eventual acceptance that sex is simply one form of medicine Hannah used as balm her wounds. The Western is almost exclusively a masculine construct, rarely taking the time to consider how women coped with the existential dilemmas of their days. “Sometimes I’d have him and sometimes he’d have me,” Hannah says when confronted with her carnal past, unafraid to reopen those lacerations for her returned husband to see. Though it’s tough to label Fonda’s film a feminist text, especially given how the scene is used as a sort of “teaching moment” for its male protagonist, it still feels surprisingly raw and refreshing for a genre in which most women are either whores, mothers, damsels in distress, but nothing in-between.

As much as The Hired Hand is clearly the product of a director with a hyper-specific, revisionist take on a classic filmic form, it equally belongs to editor Frank Mazzolla, who blends scenes and constructs moments in such a way that we feel as if we’re drowning in these characters’ solitude. Campfire conversations become impressionistic confessionals, while (in one of the movie’s most striking scenes) Arch’s eulogy to Dan is transformed into a silhouetted scripture reading, lit by barely burning embers as the boy’s hopes of ever seeing the Pacific are buried along with his body. To call The Hired Hand one of the loveliest Westerns ever crafted might seem like hyperbole, but it’s also difficult to think of any motion picture, genre or otherwise, that looks quite like it.

Scoring these splintered, oozing daydreams is a minimalist folk score from freshman composer Bruce Langhorne. A Greenwich Village session musician for everyone from Bob Dyan to Joan Baez (who, according to legend, was the inspiration for Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”), Langhorne cobbles together a country Greek chorus that sonically imbues every scene with an almost intuitive sense of emotional catharsis. When Sharp’s script isn’t filling characters’ mouths with terse exchanges, Greenhorne’s mix of plucked guitar, piano, fiddle, and harmonica are doing all the speaking for them. As cliché as it might be, the soundtrack is always acting as an invisible player, allowing us to relish the film’s deeply felt passions and sentiments.

The final act of The Hired Hand veers into traditional territory, as Arch is kidnapped by the McVey boys and Harry rides off to rescue the only brother he’s ever known, leaving Hannah and Janey alone again. Still, no amount of convention could rob Fonda’s masterwork of its peculiar power. In the end, the movie seems to be after truths far less complex than Hopper or Hellman’s opaque outsider spiritualism, yet is still bound to its cash-in kin via inimitably poetic Americana. Home is a place where the door is always left open for you, regardless of past transgressions, and family are the folks who can forgive these errors and try to change alongside you. The rest is just a broken trail, destined to be traveled by dreamers who never got hip to these inherent honesties. Pretty square coming from the guy who helped bring freedom to the mainstream, only to realize they blew it.

Jacob Knight is the co-founder/host/editor of Secret Handshake.

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