In the wake of EASY RIDER reinventing the cinematic wheel, Universal Pictures made a five-picture deal with young filmmakers, offering them each a million dollar budget and final cut, one of these films was Peter Fonda’s THE HIRED HAND. In his directorial debut, Fonda captures an intimate portrait of friendship and identity and foregoes the ultra-violence of Sam Peckinpah and embraces the melodrama of Douglas Sirk.
What is most striking about the film is the technical achievements, the cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is without a doubt, absolutely astounding. He captures life, which at no point seems staged, as if it is happenstance that he just happened to be there to document the story; it all just seems so effortless. Bruce Langhorne’s score further laminates the remarkable visual beauty, with serene musical numbers that accompany Fonda and Warren Oates as they travel back to Fonda’s homestead.
The two men head back, in hopes that Fonda’s wife (played by the remarkable Verna Bloom), ten years his senior, will accept him back after he left unannounced years ago. The pair was originally a trio, and the third, a young hand, gets murdered under a mysterious cloud in the first town they stop in, those are the events that lead to Fonda’s awakening of needing to go home.
Once the pair reach the homestead, many revelations lead to an introspective crisis for all involved. Fonda forcing himself back into a life he left behind, Bloom and her transgressions while Fonda had been away, and Oates and his silent love for Bloom. The performances are as magnificent as one would think. Fonda gives a sleeper performance, very understated yet quietly raw and vulnerable. He doesn’t speak much, he doesn’t do much; yet every single frame he is in, one cannot help but be completely captivated and enamored by him. Bloom is just as wonderful, showcasing her range by providing grit with deep vulnerability. And then there is Warren Oates, and in this film, he is as expected, Warren Oates playing Warren Oates. He is remarkable.
Technically, the film is a hybrid of its time, much like EASY RIDER, the film looks and feels like it takes place in the time it is set, yet it is absolutely apparent when the film was made, the freeze-frame psychedelic aesthetic is used just enough, without wearing itself out, and the editing by Frank Mazzola is out of this world. THE HIRED HAND fits perfectly with the cinematic output of the late 60s and early 70s, and is absolutely the conventionally unconventional western much like the films of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone.