Tuesday, February 1, 2022

#2,702. The Hired Hand (1971) - The Wild West


Westerns are our way of exploring our own mythology”.

So said director Peter Fonda in the DVD commentary for his 1971 revisionist western The Hired Hand. Inspired, no doubt, by his buddy Dennis Hopper, who a few years earlier had helmed the classic Easy Rider, Fonda’s The Hired Hand features complex characters, a multi-layered story, and style to spare.

Harry (Fonda) and Arch (Warren Oates) have spent the last seven years drifting from territory to territory. Both Arch and their newest riding partner, a young man named Dan (Robert Pratt), think it would be best if they all head west to California. But Harry is tired of life on the open trail, and decides it’s time he return home to his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) and young daughter Jamie (Megan Denver).

Before they set out, Dan is shot dead by a man named McVey (Severn Darden), who claimed he caught Dan in bed with his wife (Rita Rogers).

After avenging Dan’s murder (by shooting McVey in the feet), Harry and Arch make their way to Harry’s homestead, where, at first, Hannah is none too happy to see either of them. Harry, however, insists that he’s back for good, and convinces Hannah to give him a chance by taking he and Arch on as hired hands.

But is Harry truly ready to settle down, or will he grow restless, as Hannah fears, and ride off again?

There’s a lot going on in The Hired Hand, from symbolism to deep-seated emotions that occasionally bubble to the surface, all explored in a tender, artistic manner. When describing his three main characters in the DVD commentary, Fonda said that Harry represented ambiguity, Arch was wisdom, and Dan was innocence, adding that, when innocence is killed, ambiguity and wisdom ride off together in the hopes of building a better life for themselves. By allowing his camera to sit back and observe, Fonda continually clues us in on the fact that there’s more to The Hired Hand than any synopsis could reveal, and as a result we pay close attention to the details, to ensure we take in everything this amazing picture has to offer.

Fonda and Pratt play their parts well, as does Verna Bloom as the lonely wife who cannot forget the heartbreak of being left behind. But it’s Warren Oates as Arch, the grizzled cowboy with advice at the ready (as Fonda calls him, the “wisdom”), who delivers the film’s most nuanced performance. From the moment they settle down with Hannah, it’s Arch who knows what must be done to rekindle the love between the estranged couple, usually well before Harry himself has figured it out.

As good as the performances are, it is Fonda’s stylistic approach that truly distinguishes The Hired Hand from its contemporaries. Utilizing slow-motion at regular intervals throughout the film and exploring everything the picturesque landscape has to offer (the movie was filmed on-location in New Mexico), Fonda and his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (who also shot Easy Rider) give the movie a look that is damn near ethereal, even during those moments that feel 100% genuine (Dan’s death is particularly gruesome, yet has a mystical quality to it).

This, coupled with Bruce Langhorne’s melancholy musical score, helped make The Hired Hand one of the most beautiful, creative, and engaging westerns to emerge from the 1970’s.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

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