After the massive success that was Easy Rider, Universal ended up making a rather inexplicable move: they gave that film’s main actor, Peter Fonda, a budget, a director’s slot, and free reign to basically do whatever the hell he wanted. The result is The Hired Hand, the first of only three films that Peter Fonda would ever direct. I wasn’t too keen on this initially, just because I had a tiny moment of resentment that the list would add yet another western to the mix. Then I started it, and found myself taking quite a liking to it pretty much from the get-go. It was stylish, and knew quite firmly what it wanted to be, and thanks to Fonda’s complete creative control, it ends up living to its full potential.
Fonda also stars here as Harry Collings, who rides around the Southwest with his friend Arch, played by Warren Oates. They’ve been riding for seven years, and Harry is growing tired and homesick, having left his wife and child all those years back when. After arriving at a run-down town, Harry up and announces to his traveling mates that he intends to head home, regardless of what might be the situation back there with his wife and kid. Sure enough, his wife doesn’t take kindly to his showing up out of the blue after so long, and his daughter thinks her dad is dead. Nevertheless, he resolves to stay, accepting a living arrangement as a would-be hired hand on her property, to see how things turn out. Now, if that plot sounds like it lends itself a little too much to meandering around, you’d be right; the film spends a large amount of its running time essentially following its characters around, even if they’re not really advancing the plot at all. But, that’s what makes The Hired Hand work; it’s intentionally not plot-driven, but instead aspired to be mood-driven. The film makes its intentions known right off the bat with its opening shot, which lasts a good 2-3 minutes, and consists of a hazy, slow-motion dream of a sequence, with sunlight shimmering off water right into the camera as images are layered and half-focused between. Clearly, this is a film that is going to be fully focused on the visual aesthetic, which is all right by me, as long as the story doesn’t take too much of a hit as a result. But, this isn’t a film that is focused on the story; instead, it sets up the situation and lets things unfold on their own, at their own pace, and despite how languid such a film may sound, I enjoyed the experience that this had to offer. Of course, most of it was that the film was very nice to look at; it wasn’t excessively beautiful, but it did know what it wanted to achieve with its visuals, and that confidence extended to the visuals themselves. As was readily apparent in the first few minutes, slow motion is a recurring motif in this film; Fonda apparently enjoys the hallucinatory expressiveness that slow motion lends to damn near every shot he uses it on. The music was also quite enjoyable, and lent itself extremely well to the setting and mood the film employed.
I don’t know if there was a real need to add this to the list or not, but I’m certainly not going to complain about it; I liked this film too much for me to do that. To me, this film compared to other westerns is like eating chocolate; you can either chew it fully, enjoy the taste, and swallow, or you can leave it in your mouth as it slowly dissolves, savoring the experience. The Hired Hand is very much a savory experience, as opposed to one that’s focused on delivering chunks of plot at a time. The term “acid western” has been used to describe this, and I can see that pretty easily; there’s just a lack of other terms that would adequately express the mood of this one. For what it’s worth, this isn’t as “trippy” as that term would imply, but that doesn’t mean that this isn’t pretty heady. I was surprised how much I ended up liking this one, so who knows; maybe you’ll find yourself a new western here to add to your own list of favorites.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10