Western Wednesdays: ‘Ride in the Whirlwind’

Once upon a time, Jack Nicholson was a screenwriter. He has six films to his credit, and I’m not entirely sure why he stopped. Perhaps it took too much time away from being one of Hollywood’s most notorious bad boys.

Ride in the Whirlwind was his third script, as per IMDB, and his second collaboration with director Monte Hellman. It’s touted as being inspired by “actual frontier journals.” After sitting through the weird and lonely experience, I’ve decided that means Nicholson paid a lot of attention to how horses were saddled, how uncomfortable boots were, and how people ate a lot of biscuits.

Ride in the Whirlwind has a fervent cult following because of its sparse realism, and the fact that it feels like it could have happened. There’s truth to that. There are a lot of great little details here (cowboy boots being unfit for hiking), and it’s certainly devoid of epic shootouts, squinting close-ups, and prostitutes with hearts of gold. It has a lot of atmosphere on a tiny budget, undoubtedly due to the guidance of Roger Corman.

But I’m not convinced Ride in the Whirlwind is deserving of such lavish underground praise. This film is far from poetry. The characters aren’t interesting, the performances (except for Nicholson’s) are weak, and a lot of the dialogue is pretty corny. A lean script isn’t necessarily a brilliant one, and it doesn’t always make for compelling viewing.

Whirlwind isn’t particularly groundbreaking, either. By the 1960s, Westerns were already losing their John Ford gloss, and becoming something darker and dirtier. Realism was in, crisp shirts and clean morals were out. Films like The Ox-Bow Incident had already criticized vigilante justice. All Whirlwind does is strip it of a human connection.

Sure, you empathize with these guys because you know they’re innocent cowhands, but they’re nothing more than ciphers. Call it authenticity if you like, but when one cowhand declares the other is his best friend, I think it’s more true to life if you can see or feel it.

If you’re truly interested in the so-called “acid western,”  you might want to give it a watch. There’s definitely something heavy and bleak to its tone, a vibe reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy and post-apocalyptic tales. There’s undoubtedly a socio-political paper begging to be written about what miserable slice of the zeitgeist this film captures.

Yet A Fistful of Dollars was done the same year. Barring a similar enchantment with sweat grime, and solitude, they couldn’t be more different. And when you really start to pull at those  long, lingering shots of Nicholson saddling his horse, or a family serving up dinner, there doesn’t really seem to be anything underneath.

Is that the point? Does it go about its business, confident you’ll walk away knowing that nothing ever ends, and violence begets violence?  Or was Whirlwind just an excuse for a lot of people to play cowboy on the cheap, and we’re all taking it way too seriously?

I don’t know. I was ready to dismiss it as hollow when the credits rolled, but it may be purposefully lost in its space and sand.  I’m just not willing to ride back into the emptiness to find out what it is.

Ride in the Whirlwind is available on Netflix Instant Watch, as have most of the Western Wednesdays before it.  See if you can keep up with me!

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