Directed by Peter Fonda. Written by Alan Sharp. Starring Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Verna Bloom, and Robert Pratt. Rated R.
THE HIRED HAND is an artsy and unconventional American Western that's more or less about the bond of friendship. Harry (Fonda) and Arch (Warren Oates) are best friends who have been travelling together for seven years. During that time, Harry has abandoned his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) for reasons that aren't exactly explained. The movie begins with the two friends and another acquaintance riding out to California for the sole purpose of seeing the ocean for the first time. Along the way, they have a run-in with certain characters in a very small town out in the middle of nowhere thanks to their much younger acquaintance who decides to get a little too friendly with a married woman. At some point, Harry decides that he wants to go back home and make things right with his wife and estranged daughter. Initially surprised by his abrupt decision, Arch, out of respect, escorts Harry back home and puts his journey to the west coast on hold.
What follows is basically Harry attempting to fix his strained relationship with his family. Hannah understandably wants nothing to do with him and his young daughter doesn't even know who he is, so Harry and Arch take up jobs as hired hands on Hannah's farm for the time being. Warren Oates, as Arch, acts as a voice of reason and a mediator between the two, with hopes that they can become a family again and he can finally be on his way. Things take a turn when the characters who they had a run-in with earlier come back into the picture. Arch finds himself in danger and Harry is forced to make a choice between friendship and family - if he tries to save his best friend, there's a good chance he may never see his family again.
THE HIRED HAND is a pretty simple movie. Actually, it's a bit slow for the most part. Not a whole lot going on. Like I said, it's very artsy for a Western and comparable to David Lynch trying to direct a straightforward Western. There are some very, very subtle EL TOPO-ish moments as well, not in terms of violence or being allegorical, but in terms of style and look (especially the scenes in which Oates and Fonda are out on the sand dunes, pictured below). That being said, this film has some amazing cinematography, and to go along with the beautiful visuals of the film, we have a gorgeous bluegrass-y score consisting of acoustic slide guitar, banjo, fiddle, and light piano. The story itself is interesting enough, but it's the visuals, score, and the great performances from Oates, Fonda, and Bloom are what really drive the movie.
Make or Break: Despite the fact that, as a whole, there's not a lot going on in the movie, there are still a lot of really good "moments" scattered throughout. It was hard to pick a "make or break" scene, but I'm going with the scene in which Fonda and Oates are burying their younger acquaintance and traveling partner who I mentioned earlier. The character's demise happens early in the film, so I'm not spoiling anything for anyone. Anyway, as Fonda and Oates are laying him to rest, the scene goes dark in a very theatrical manner and Oates says a prayer while the film's amazing score plays in the background. It's a simple but very moving scene that set really set the tone for the rest of the film.
MVT: Fonda does a great job, and of course both the music and cinematography are well-deserving of being the most valuable thing in the movie, but I have to give it to the late, great Warren Oates for his amazing performance. Just watch the movie and you'll see why.
A slow, but highly recommended film nonetheless. If you like the unconventional approach of Westerns, like Fulci's FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE or Corbucci's GREAT SILENCE for example, THE HIRED HAND is worth checking out. Of course it's not nearly as violent as those two films, but its similarities lie in its tone, style, and how outside of the box it is. Now that I think about it, calling this a "Western" is a bit unfair. It's more of a Drama that just so happens to take place in a Western setting. On a side note, I'd actually recommend this as a fun double-feature with another Fonda/Oates collaboration, RACE WITH THE DEVIL.