by Heath Holland
A man (Cliff Robertson) wakes up next to his sleeping wife, quietly gets out of bed, and makes his way to the bathroom. He clicks on the light, splashes a little water on his face, and then wanders methodically into another room, which is filled wall to wall with guns of every kind. We soon learn that this man is bound for a hunting trip with some of his pals, a bunch of guys who are either ex-military or still serving. These men, including Ernest Borgnine and Henry Silva, laugh and joke as they drive into the woods while the sun still sleeps beyond the horizon. They tease each other, laugh about past experiences, and appear to be long-time friends just looking for an escape from their daily grind.
As the morning wears on, the trip begins to look like a bust until something unexpected occurs. The hunting party finds themselves near a stream or a small river when they hear the snap of a branch. They look across the water to see another group of men, nearly their mirror image, staring at them from across the gap. For several long moments, that’s all they do, simply stare at each other. Then one of the men on the far bank raises his rifle and fires, grazing one of the group of military friends. With almost no hesitation, a firefight breaks out, and a member of Robertson’s group puts a bullet right in the middle of the head of the attackers.
That’s the premise of 1976’s Shoot, a mostly-forgotten little film that has an awful lot on its mind. There are reasons the movie is obscure: it’s drab in presentation, the script sags in the middle, and it’s often boring as we’re waiting for something, anything, to happen. But in light of recent events and the ever-rising debate of gun control, it seems frighteningly-relevant to our times. The conversation about gun control is nothing new, as this movie makes abundantly clear. Even more surprising is how the same points that people use today to justify the accumulation of firearms are the same ones trotted out in this movie, which was released nearly 42 years ago, as of this writing. More than anything, though, the movie is a look at the psychology of a certain kind of person, the gun advocate who believes that a war is coming and that they’ll need all the weapons they can get their hands on to fight in it when it does.
first Spider-Man film. Ernest Borgnine’s resume speaks for itself. An Oscar winner for 1956’s Marty, Borgnine would spend much of his career in eccentric character roles in films like The Wild Bunch and Escape from New York, and that’s the kind of performance that he delivers here. It’s a great part, and he’s great in it, but he’s in full support mode here. Rounding out the cast is Henry Silva, famous for his crime and action films both in America and in Europe, but maybe best regarded for his role in The Manchurian Candidate. Both Borgnine and Silva take their marching orders, as it were, from Robertson, with Borgnine having some serious reservations about actively looking for violence. He gives a great little monologue about two-thirds into the film.
There’s a neo-noir vibe that I detect here, maybe because most of the story takes place in what feels like isolation, as Cliff Robertson, in a weird way, seems like a man who is being caught in a noose of his own making. Other themes of noir are present, too. There’s a seductive wife of a friend who tries to get Robertson to sleep with her, declaring breathlessly that he can have her anytime and anywhere. There’s a grieving widow, fresh from the burial of her husband, who drunkenly asks Robertson if he can tell that she’s not wearing any underwear beneath her black funeral dress. Even the score, which consists mostly of a solitary trumpet playing a riff in a minor key, adds to the noir feel even though the setting is far from the traditional environments of the genre.
Here’s the thing about Shoot: I think it makes a clear statement about gun culture, particularly the people who stockpile weapons in their own house and display them, clean them, and amass huge quantities of ammunition in the belief that they will one day need them. I believe the film takes a side on the matter, but I can also see that it was composed with a certain level of nuance that allows for a different read. I can see someone watching this movie and believing that it supports a stance different from my own. I think sometimes maybe it actually does. This could viewed as a weakness, as the movie never explicitly declares a side to be right or wrong. It simply depicts the conflict and the consequences of the actions taken by the characters. While the movie shows us the debate about guns, with characters discussing “bleeding-heart liberals and hippies” who want to de-arm the public so that they can steal, rape, and plunder a defenseless society, it also shows consequences of that mentality. Ultimately, I think the movie is more interested in looking at the psychology of the people who feel the need to amass dozens upon dozens of firearms and are secretly hoping something happens so they’ll get to use them. This occasionally muddies the narrative, and it sometimes seems like the film is even at war with itself.