Following Fonda’s involvement with the classic counter-culture film, Easy Rider, he was amazingly given basically free reign over his directorial debut. The result was this trippy and mellow, acid-western that was little appreciated upon release. A few years following its theatrical release, it played on NBC with an additional 20 minutes of footage added, as a sort of “director’s cut”. It was after this that the film drifted into obscurity until it saw its release to DVD during the 2000’s. Fonda’s directors cut footage is relegated to the extras on the disc that I saw, and the film is the original cut as Fonda removed this footage that originally aired on television. I’m not sure why the film strikes quite so well. It has something to do with it being this sort of clairvoyant and atmospheric mood piece. It also has something to do with the minimalist dialogue, the brilliant cinematography and the memorable score written by Bruce Langhorne. I’m not sure the plot is anything fully developed, but there’s a high degree of feeling to this film nonetheless.
Fonda stars as Harry Collins, who along with his pal, Arch (Warren Oats) have been wandering around the west, working and doing who-knows-what for years. While discussing the prospects of heading to California for work, Harry professes a desire to return to his wife whom he left 7 years prior. So Arch and Harry travel together to find his old home. When they reach the homestead, they find his wife, Hannah (Verna Bloom) and a daughter that he didn’t know he had. Hannah doesn’t welcome him home very easily….but she decides to allow Collins and Arch to stay on as hired hands. Ultimately, past and present begin to merge in a slowly escalating series of conversations….wracked by regrets and desires. Toward the end of the film, the beauty of true reconciliation between Hannah and Collins is threatened when some thugs who’ve hounded Collins and Arch in the past step in to cause trouble.
This remarkably simple and straightforward plot is nonetheless rife with interesting characters. Harry is a rather meek and humble individual….feeling like he has honestly made a huge mistake in his life when he left his wife. This concept of the deadbeat dad returning home after many years allows for an interesting characterization of womanhood and motherhood to appear here…..Hannah, a single mother has spent several years on her own taking care of her child. She is tough-minded, aggressive and matter of fact, seemingly the opposite of Harry’s quiet and rather coy cowboy. Often the film will frame Hannah standing or seated above Harry or Arch, displaying her superior psychological development and maturity level above theirs. These signs of power from Hannah are not limited to psychology either. Not only does she admit to having affairs with multiple men who have worked her farm for years, there’s this amazing monologue she has where she details how her body craved being with a man for so long that she just couldn’t take being alone anymore. Her sexual liberation certainly reflects a more modern 1970’s sensibility than 19th century. But, her flagrant and burning sexuality, subverts the cliche of the chaste prairie woman. This characterization is one of the film’s most memorable aspects, as a battle of the sexes is undergone between Hannah and the men.
Fonda’s utilization of the soundscape-acid-country-folk twang of Bruce Langhorne’s works for the film is fairly mesmerizing, particularly in the opening sequence which is a tour-de-force of cinematography and musical mood. We’ve got the lush, shimmering, slow motion of the river; the images of two men, one fishing and one swimming, then the overlays and the slow fades of the images, all with Langhorne’s lilting, droning, chiming banjo and fiddles intertwining. Langhorne’s music continues to impress throughout the film adding a beautiful melancholia. Vilmos Zsigmond contributes his considerable photographic talent as well, finding moments of spiritual rapture and moments of quiet stillness. Fonda’s emphasis on allowing for long fades and overlays makes the film feel very slow paced, which suits the plot well, as everything is about buried subtext rather than overt exposition. In the end, the film questions the ability of the loner cowboy to be able to settle down, the question that continues after films like Shane, Will Penny etc. Here it’s not so much Harry’s personal choice, but the code of ethics of friendship that puts his domestic pursuits in jeopardy, reminding us that in the west, life was cheap and life was short.