“One shot and the world gets smaller.”
–Marilyn Manson, ‘The Reflecting God”
I was going down the rabbit-hole of 70’s films on YouTube and obscure film lists on Letterboxd when I discovered Shoot. This 1976 gem of paranoia and violence fits right in with so many other beloved classics of that decade. I have no idea how it is that I’ve never seen this movie before. As a kid, I would have read the movie listings in the paper guide and been attracted to it simply by its title. That’s sort of how I would choose films back in those days. Alas, I’d never even heard of this Canadian film until now. It is obscure enough that you can’t find it for purchase anywhere. It’s not available on DVD at all, and VHS tapes of it are probably scarce as well. The only place it can currently be seen is a questionable-quality upload on YouTube. It was based on a book by Douglas Fairbairn.
The tagline sets up the simple story pretty well.
“A thriller that begins where Deliverance left off.”
The cast is led by Cliff Robertson. He won the Academy Award for best actor in 1968’s Charly. He also starred in Three Days of the Condor, Obsession, and Midway. But for me, I will always think of his as Hugh Hefner in the 1980 Bob Fosse film Star 80. Ernest Borgnine is also on the team as the voice of reason and restraint. Casting Borgnine was perfect, as people would remember his as ‘Dutch’ in Sam Peckinpah’s classic The Wild Bunch. He also won the Academy Award for best actor in 1955’s film Marty. And Henry Silva is the hot head of the group. He starred as various bad guys for decades, but I remember him best as the coke-fueled assassin in Sharky’s Machine. These three actors were cast perfectly, a believable collection of men’s men.
A group of 5 men go on a hunting trip and encounter another hunting party. Mistakes are made, and one man is killed in a brief shootout. But then it gets very interesting as the men go about trying to determine what to do next. They debate the implications of killing a man out in the forest and reporting it or waiting to see if the other group does. The paranoia grows. Secrets are kept, investigations mounted, alliances formed, motivations questioned, moral issues debated, and violence planned. There is a post-Vietnam malaise of veterans returned from the war with no outlet for their training or fighting instincts. I was often reminded of First Blood, especially the novel by David Morrell.
I wonder if Michael Cimino saw this film, as it came out two years before his classic, The Deer Hunter. The scenes of 5 friends going on a hunting trip, each of varied levels of skill and dedication, are strikingly similar. I almost expected Cliff Robertson to say, “A deer’s gotta be taken with one shot.” Except in The Deer Hunter they do find and shoot a deer. In Shoot, they never find anything. But when they find another hunting party, they end up killing one of them. A theme of this film seem to be that guns are meant to be fired eventually, and if men cannot find animal prey to shoot at they will shoot at each other. Humans are, after all, the most dangerous game.
There is a scene in Sam Peckinpah’s western classic Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid that seems to be a direct influence on this movie. In Bloody Sam’s 1973 movie, James Coburn watches a family on a boat float by on the river. The man on the boat is target shooting at empty bottles that his son is tossing in the river. Coburn decides to also fire at the bottle. Earlier in the film he did the same thing when coming up on his friends target shooting at chickens. Coburn’s character (unseen by his friends) started shooting at the chickens to surprise them. Back on the river, the man on the boat becomes scared at this stranger on the shore firing a gun, so he takes a shot at Coburn. His family hides on the boat. Coburn grabs his rifle and prepares to fire back but doesn’t. Both men size each other up and think about what just happened and what could possibly happen. They each hold their rifles and the boat passes down the river without further incident. They watch each other with understanding. This is a very elegiac and poetic scene in a film about changing times. I am happily surprised that a producer didn’t cut this scene.
Three years later, in Shoot, we have a very similar encounter. Our team of 5 hunters who are bored and frustrated at not finding any deer discover another team of 5 hunters across the river. They size each other up. Both groups are wearing green camouflage clothing and orange wool caps. It’s a surreal mirror image. Ernest Borgnine’s character even states, “They look just like us.” Then one of the other men fires on our team and hits a character in the head. Everyone shoots back and a firefight ensues. The original shooter is shot in the forehead and dragged off. Borgnine keeps yelling, “NO! NO!” which reminded me of Warren Oates yelling the same thing during his shootout in Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me The Head of Alfred Garcia. Random violence broke out for no reason. Did one team think the other team was trespassing on their land? Trying to kill them? Were they guarding a drug lab? Did they just want to kill a stranger? We will never know, and that actually isn’t important. Unexplained misunderstandings and ‘hunting accidents’ happen. Boredom, machismo, brotherhood, and violence bubbling just under everyone’s skin caused this. Vietnam veterans probably suffering from PTSD with no outlet for their rage and training. A national obsession and worship of guns and firepower. Add in themes of tribalism and territoriality and this all could be an allegory for most wars of the last few decades. There is usually no turning back after an initial act of violence and death happens.
Even though this is decidedly a man’s movie, three women characters are given very interesting counterpoints to the male characters. Cliff Robertson learns of the funeral service for the man who was killed on the riverbank and goes to meet the widow. He poses as an old friend to learn what she knew about the killing, and whether the other men in that group are plotting revenge. Kate Reid just about steals the show as the widow. She reveals that the men have described the incident as a stray bullet causing an accidental killing. The way she asks him “Are you a hunter, sir?”, is both wounded and defiant. Grieving and drunk, she talks about sleeping with a gun under her pillow. She gets in an interesting discussion about 2nd amendment gun rights and her fear of crime and drug users. Typical conservative philosophy. She makes racist comments blaming minorities for crime in general, and babbles about hippies deserving what they get. It’s a fascinating scene, and very well acted.
Another interesting scene is when Cliff Robertson’s wife says to him, “Why are you home early on a Saturday night? Is it that time of the month for your friend?” We immediately know that their marriage is ending or over, and he has a mistress, but the wife still remains there. They are clearly only together for their daughter, and the wife’s misguided hope that it will get better. He implies that one of them could move out and she says, “I prefer it this way.” He may be primarily absent, but at least he is there sometimes.
Then Helen Shaver puts in a stellar performance with her one brief scene. She plays an acquaintance of the main character trying to get a job from Cliff Robertson, and she comes on to him strong. It turns out she doesn’t even want the job, she just wants him. She’s full of flirty comments, promises, and allusions. She tries to seduce him in an office and does a lot with very little. He resists her blatant offers for sexual involvement. I was so impressed with her performance here, it’s such a tour de force. I’d love to know if this scene was scripted this way, or if there was some improvisation. Shoot appears to be her first major studio film, so this was a great debut of a talented new actress.
Ernest Borgnine (Lew) gives a stunning speech late in the film during a planning meeting of the team. Cliff Robertson (Rex) is planning on how to get weapons and additional men to go out and ambush the enemy. It’s a study of the concept of groupthink. Everybody is just going along with the insane plans except Borgnine’s character. He listens to the plans and struggles with it before finally trying one last time to talk them out of it. He continues to resist the group’s trajectory towards more violence, and debates their potential actions eloquently and passionately. His monologue is logical but heartfelt, and very convincing. This scene alone is worth watching the movie for.
Rex: “But if one of those guys fires one shot…just one shot. God help ’em.”
Lew: “No…God better help YOU. Because you WANT it to happen.”
While arranging to get their veterinarian friend to treat the head wound and debating what to do about the incident, Cliff Robertson says “I do respect Pete’s bleeding head, and Lew’s bleeding heart.” That summarizes the balance perfectly as the main character tries to placate all opinions. Revenge vs. Mercy. I don’t think the film is actually taking a position philosophically. I think militaristic gun-loving people can enjoy the film as well as pacifist liberals. One could find the film celebrating this gun-culture machismo, or one could find the film condemning and criticizing it. There are certainly scenes of men cleaning their guns and valuing firepower above all else. And conversely there are scenes vocalizing and damning the ludicrous actions taken by fearful men. Obvious connections to fascism with one dictatorial leader are present, and I was also reminded of the fascistic leanings of the first Dirty Harry film in 1971. The scenes of violence can be enjoyed as in an action movie, or judged as man’s brutal inhumanity to man. It’s the moral and philosophical questions the film raises that interested me the most. I also thought of similar films like Southern Comfort and Red Dawn, as well as the obvious comparisons to Deliverance and First Blood. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s one you probably haven’t seen and should.
This film follows in the steps of many other great 70’s films of a certain bleak grit. Taxi Driver, released the same year, was the story of a sociopathic Vietnam Vet having trouble fitting into the world and taking on a cause. It ends in an infamous bloodbath. Soldier Blue was a western that builds to a gut-wrenchingly violent climax. Straw Dogs is another uncomfortable Peckinpah film that builds up to the riveting violent conclusion. Deliverance, Death Wish, Dirty Harry, and Rolling Thunder (released after Shoot) all have violent denouements that aren’t particularly happy endings. Even if you win, you lose. Often at the cost of your soul.
Here is the only online version that I could find. I sincerely hope this film gets a DVD/BluRay release soon.