Shoot (1976)

*. Here’s a little movie that’s a nasty piece of work.
*. The set-up makes us think of Deliverance, or perhaps The Deer Hunter. A group of weekend warriors who like to tell dirty jokes, fart, and call each other fags go on a hunting trip in Canada (just north of Toronto actually, but Canada is all a wilderness to an innocent American eye). There they meet another group of hunters who they stand off against across a river. Someone in the other group opens fire and the local boys fire back. A man is killed.
*. This leads to the clearest borrowing from Deliverance, as the gang start to argue over what they should do next and what the legal repercussions might be. The leader, Cliff Robertson, carries the day, while the group’s conscience, Ernest Borgnine, becomes the odd man out.
*. That matter settled, they decide to wait to see if things will just blow over, but then suspect that the other group are plotting their own extra-legal form of revenge. Thinking to steal a march on them, the gang return to the woods with a bunch of their heavily-armed national guard buddies, only to walk into an ambush.
*. Now if you just heard that plot synopsis you’d probably think this is a pretty silly movie. And it is. There’s nothing realistic about it. Hunters do not go smashing through the woods all packed together in a group and bellowing at each other. What the hell are they hunting? Mushrooms?
*. But it’s probably wrong to view it realistically. The middle-aged boys with their monosyllabic names — Rex (the alpha male, naturally), Lou, Zeke, Pete, Bob, and Jim — are slowly absorbed into their own fantasy, a game without frontiers. The final battle is directly brought about through their gradually rising sense of paranoia. Up until the very end we’re pretty sure the counterplot can’t be real. That mysterious man who seems to be following them around? Surely just a coincidence.
*. Adding to the sense of fantasy are a couple of other elements. First there is the way the women come on to Rex in a couple of scenes that play out in a bizarre, almost pornographic manner. Alas, they are frustrated by Rex’s indifference. We’ve already seen him cleaning his rifle in a manner that suggests auto(matic)erotic tendencies.
*. Then there is the ending, which has a dream quality that makes us wonder about the events we’ve just seen. Rex alone has survived to tell the tale? Or is he just waking up? One imagines that sweeping so many bodies under the rug as another hunting accident will be rather difficult.
*. But leaving the fantasy vs. reality question aside, the nastiness remains. This is, as Kim Newman recognized, a deeply misanthropic film. It is so, I think for two reasons.
*. In the first place there’s the genre, which I would characterize as “hunting humans.” This goes back at least to The Most Dangerous Game, and Rex even quotes some Hemingway to the same effect: “There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.” This is an inherently misanthropic attitude to take, as it reduces civilization to the law of the jungle and people to mere predators and prey. That such a survival-of-the-nastiest philosophy is so prevalent today is one reason, I have argued, for the popularity of zombie movies, the basic message of which is that other people need to be killed before they kill and eat you. Society has devolved to a war of all against all. And it has so devolved because people like Rex and his buddies (excepting Lou) desire it.
*. This brings me to the second reason Shoot is such a nasty movie, which is the creepy and dislikeable character of Rex. Despite his kingly name and the way women throw themselves at his feet, he is a small man. Like most small men (I mean small in terms of character), he is a bossy, authoritarian martinet (“Men, we’ll keep this meeting brief . . . ” a line he delivers while wearing sunglasses, indoors and at night). He could be a comic figure — and there are moments near the end here where comedy is knocking on the door — but mainly he’s just unpleasant.
*. It’s an interesting question as to how much of this was intentional. Is Rex proven right in the end, or was it all his fault? Why is he the sole survivor? Is that an endorsement of his point of view, or is it meant to be ironic? Does he represent some kind of masculine-militaristic code, or that code’s paranoid perversion?
*. Take, for example, the scene where he visits the victim’s widow. He runs away from her fast enough, with her speech against “junkies, hippies and jigs” as well as “ecology nuts and anti-gun nuts,” but aren’t they two of a kind? She also tells him that she sleeps with a gun in her bedside drawer (which impresses him) and reveals that she isn’t wearing any underwear (which doesn’t).
*. It’s this dark ambiguity that makes Shoot a movie worth tracking down. Much of it is not well done. It’s cheap and suffers from a canned score and flat direction by Harvey Hart. But it has a good cast and a few moments of real fascination (the standoff across the river, in particular, is excellent).
*. The most interesting thing about it though is Cliff Robertson’s Rex, a true antihero figure in that he is someone who is impossible to like or identify with but who nevertheless commands the entire film. Rex drives the movie’s theme, which, as I see it, is about how the imagining of violence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Yeats would say, the bored guardsmen have fed their hearts on fantasies and their hearts have grown brutal on the fare.

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