The Hired Hand / Peter Fonda / 1971 / fivestar

Active Ingredients: Cinematography; Theme of friendship; Acting
Side Effects: Some dated psychedelic effects

Throughout the 60s and 70s, American cinema made a pronounced shift from the polished fare of the studio star system to more dangerous and experimental films. Influenced by the French New Wave, these “New Hollywood” directors injected a youthful vigor and realism into films of all genres, like the noir (Chinatown), the road film (Easy Rider) and, in the case of The Hired Hand, the Western.

The change in approach the New Hollywood brought to the tired visual tropes of the Western is apparent immediately. Gone are the wide vistas and saturated hues of the Technicolor days, replaced with sharp blues and grimy authenticity. Fonda and his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond also play with layered images in a few moody montages, overlapping shots to create an otherworldly, poetic representation of time passing. These touches do feel a bit dated—the aesthetics of the film are unmistakably a byproduct of 70s fashion—but their earnestness and beauty make them charming.

Fonda replicates the languid nostalgia of these passages throughout the film, about a road-weary drifter ready to settle down with the wife and child he abandoned years earlier. He’s joined by his long-time traveling companion, with whom he shares an understanding and unspoken friendship that is truly touching. Fonda examines the two types of love the drifter feels with tenderness and compassion, exhibited in the sympathy he elicits for the man’s wife. Female characters in Westerns are often cliched or neglected, but Fonda is able to foreground her drama within the larger narrative of the film. As an example of both the New Hollywood and the many potent emotional possibilities of the Western, The Hired Hand is an underseen gem.