The Acid Western is a subgenre of the Western film that elides themes of subverting the romantic mythology of the American Frontier typical of an Anti-Western with the aesthetic experimentation of the psychedelic film genre. Moral ambiguity, the indifferent brutality of nature, and framing the westward journey as a quest towards death rather than rebirth complicate and delegitimize the Western themes of manifest destiny and heroic individualism. The term ‘Acid Western’ was first coined by Pauline Kael to describe the mind-bending phantasmagoria of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo, but what are considered the first films of the genre were two stylistically modest movies by Monte Hellman released in the same year: The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, both released in 1966. The Shooting and Whirlwind revise the themes of the Old West on two sociological levels, the former being a personal exploration of individual self-destruction, and the latter an institutional critique of American justice. Taken together, these two countercultural movies conjure an image of an autodestructive American society lost in the deserts of its own inhumanity.
The Shooting inverts the grammar of a traditional western revenge plot focused on the restoration of honor through frontier justice by initiating the film with deaths that are dishonorable and unjust; a miner kills a man and child in town and is forced to flee the mining camp where the protagonist and his partners reside. The group is found by a bloodthirsty vigilante who exacts an imperfect revenge by killing an innocent man. The moral axis isn’t so much gray as it is totally absent, as the deaths are senseless and impersonal without any satisfaction of retribution. Even further alienating is the grotesque and inhospitable landscapes that our characters endure and ultimately succumb to. Dust and heat become the insurmountable force that jeopardizes the solipsistic pursuits of the characters, and the human struggles against one another are made trivial and insignificant compared to the war of attrition against the overwhelming force of nature. As the film progresses, the internal struggle of willingly marching to a sun-stroked death in pursuit of the runaway murderer eclipses the pursuit of the murderer itself. The compulsion to maintain a delusional notion of justice becomes a suicidal one, and the ‘noble’ principles that propel the death spiral reveal themselves to be empty and farcical anyway. The nihilistic bite of The Shooting is that the pursuit of destruction invariably involves self-destruction, regardless of the chimerical virtues of honor that motivate it.
On the other hand, Ride in the Whirlwind turns the priorities of the vigilante plot inside out to further deconstruct the Wild West on an interpersonal basis, rather than an internal one. Mistaken for outlaws, three cowboys are pursued by a posse hunting for the men who committed a murderous robbery nearby. The circumstances force the cowboys to flee and take a family hostage to ensure their survival from the intractable bloodlust and single-minded obstinance of American law. The very condemnation of criminality creates conditions where criminal tactics are necessary to survive, and the accusation becomes self-fulfilling as their guilt is confirmed. In this sense, the killings are measures of catharsis rather than justice, and considering an alternative to fatal force becomes unimaginable. The philosophical logic that consists of the film’s violent determinism creates a dilemma that once posed cannot be redacted or resolved except (tautologically) by more violence.
The model of the Western is the universal frame that can elaborate upon American ideology with an alarming clarity. It is fitting, then, that the countercultural phenomena of the 1960s sought to radicalize the most cherished wellspring of traditional American mythmaking and forge new realities that better reflect a world that lacks the sentimentality and moral binaries of John Wayne’s western paradise. As such, Monte Hellman’s Acid Westerns redirected the gaze of the Western from a romantic view back to an unflinching account of what lay before him: a country adrift in search of its own lost origins, whose impossible and sun-beaten journey towards home is in fact home after all.