Peter Fonda’s acid Western The Hired Hand reflects the addled headspace of its creator
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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, Quartet, has us thinking about films by actors turned first-time directors.
The Hired Hand (1971)
The following is said of Peter Fonda’s character in Steven Soderbergh’s 1999 film The Limey: “You’re not specific enough to be a person. You’re more like a vibe.” That sentiment also applies to Fonda’s trippy 1971 Western, The Hired Hand, which is the closest anyone will come to getting inside of Fonda’s head without going blind on ’shrooms and pharmaceuticals. Having delivered a huge hit for Universal with Easy Rider, the studio did what studios in the ’70s did: It gave full artistic control to a hippie visionary with no commercial instincts whatsoever. Not surprisingly, Fonda’s phantasmagoric Western bombed at the time, but it’s since been revived as a fascinating curio, one that thoroughly upends a genre built on action and machismo. It’s the most gentle of the post-Wild Bunch anti-Westerns, and one of the more gorgeously abstract.
Tying traditional genre themes of revenge and loyalty to non-traditional ones like intimacy and trust, The Hired Hand stars Fonda as a drifter who decides to come home after seven years of wandering the southwest with his buddy Warren Oates. Needless to say, his wife (Verna Bloom) isn’t terribly welcoming, so Fonda tries earning a kind of penance by offering himself as a “hired hand” around the property until he worms his way back into her heart. This being a Western, violence intervenes, forcing Fonda to make a terrible choice. Written by Alan Sharp (Ulzana’s Raid) and photographed by the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe And Mrs. Miller), The Hired Hand has a solid-enough foundation to allow for Fonda’s discursive experiments with dissolves and superimposition. The film may be a dated relic, but it’s a relic that looks beautiful under the light.
Availability: The theatrical reissue in 2001 led to a 2003 “collector’s edition” DVD that can be acquired without much fuss, or rented via Netflix.