The Hired Hand (1971)

It’s true that Peter Fonda comes out of a western tradition of sorts, which is merely an indication of his family’s presence in the film industry. Obviously, one of his father’s identifying genres was the western, and he worked with some of the greats from John Ford to Sergio Leone.

Films like My Darling Clementine have become the bar with which to evaluate future generations. Then, Peter’s older sister, Jane, of course, tried her hand with the wildly popular Cat Ballou. It’s not high art, but there’s a great deal to appreciate between her gallivanting around and the drunken histrionics of Lee Marvin.

However, with The Hired Hand, Peter starred and directed a western of a very different breed. There’s a hallucinatory quality to the movie suggesting it’s not too far removed from Monte Hellman’s acid westerns of a few years prior. It’s composed mostly of images swimming in the restless score of Bruce Langhorne.

We already have Warren Oates and Peter Fonda, and it’s obvious the genre is funneled through the vision of the counter-culture that brought us pictures like Easy Rider and even Two-Lane Blacktop. In some of his earliest feature film work, Vilmos Zsigmond provides a casual, unsentimental sense of the landscape fitting the overall canvass developed by both the editing and score.

In their passing dreams, floating just out of reach, the California coast acts as a kind of far-off oasis for the three drifters staked out by a river bed. I couldn’t help thinking of generations before. Peter’s father as Tom Joad headed to California and faced his own brand of disillusionment with the dream packaged for him. Expectations didn’t meet reality.

Peter Fonda is besieged by the discontentment and malaise of his generation, but if we recall The Grapes of Wrath maybe this youthful sense of Sehnsucht, while morphing and evolving, is not totally lost or forgotten. It’s only reimagined in new forms and under new banners.

After days without bathing and nights without a warm bed, they roll into a town. But it’s not much better than the backcountry they’ve been frequenting. At any rate, it’s hardly the picture of civilization.

The film remains mostly a sullen affair plagued by death, but not just physical death, the death of joy or adulation in any sort of quality life. It starts grappling with the life of a drifter — the camaraderie of saddle buddies — and the solace of a settled home life. Because Harry Coilings didn’t always live this peripatetic existence. Once he was married. Funny how he never mentioned it before to his companions, but then again, the overwhelming emptiness in his heart has made him crave something different. So he and Arch pay a visit to his former missus.

Warren Oates has gained some welcomed acclaim since his death as a kind of cult favorite, but in The Hired Hand there’s something especially welcomed about him. He’s congenial and faithful, a source of affability in a movie that is mostly lacking in any kind of generosity toward its audience. Fonda gives us nothing. Verna Bloom has nothing to give because her character has learned to insulate herself. And there’s really no one else to offer any kind of condolence.

The film’s barely a meditation on marriage. There’s hardly time to build this into something substantive nor entirely profound, but we do have a sense of this male camaraderie. And suddenly it gives the movie a central question. Fonda must reconcile this relationship, one that has stayed with him for years on the lonely roads, with that of a distant wife who never expected him to show his face again. Whether he totally acknowledges them, they are both of great importance to him.

At first, I mistook the finale — a giant bloody shootout — for a pointless exercise. What good does it do? Very little aside from bludgeoning us with a bleak view of the world. However, it does speak to a man’s vow of friendship. While other elements of this western are irrevocably different from the past, there’s some small amount of stability in such a simple trait as this. Is this stupid courage like the screenwriter Bill Goldman enthused about? Probably.

It’s also a glimmer of something laudable speaking to the exact same listless despondency an entire generation was looking to grapple with from Easy Rider to Five Easy Pieces. This alone doesn’t make it a superior western, simply by having a muddied, unadorned sense of the world. But Peter follows in the footsteps of his dad and sister to leave his own impression on a deeply American genre.

3/5 Stars

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