Harry Collings (Peter Fonda) and Arch Harris (Warren Oates) are on the way to the ranch where Harry’s wife, Hannah, still resides. In this way the literal level of the best available interpretation is spelled out. On a higher plane, Harry seeks some sort of equilibrium or refuge, possibly, from a world in upheaval. Nothing is right. A fishing line in the clear running waters of a scenic river dredges up the body of a little girl. Later, in town, one of the men accompanying Arch and Harry is shot to death over a woman. She knows no English and cannot testify one way or another — as useless as the victim. The shooting appears to have been a set up perfected by the whole town. This is what they do. Lawlessness is a large part of the backdrop to the film throughout. Only this particular brand is truly creepy. It cannot be traced to Liberty Valance, an unscrupulous cattle baron, or a gold strike. It is best described as in the air and water and on the land.
So much for the content in the beginning. The Hired Hand also has formalistic elements that invite the viewer, if willing, to dote upon sentiments that might emerge, gleaned from a lavish exhibition of location cinematography. Night skies are showcased, sometimes to the accompaniment of minimalist, acoustic string notes. Characters are seen in silhouette against a dark blue sky at twilight followed by a segue to fiery reds and brilliant yellows. Released in 1971, it is not surprising that there are zoom shots, ample use of a telephoto lens, freeze frames, stills, and slow-motion editing stitched together with superimposed imagery. Rather than perceive it all as dated and perhaps too distracting, however, The Hired Hand allows one to re-evaluate. Maybe the verdict remains the same, maybe not.
And then there is the town near the ranch. It is only one of many but en masse in the West settlements were what Eastern Whites had come to fight for — their founding, construction, and maintenance. This one is replete with signs that more than simply commerce signal a balance between civilization and nature, and one that Whites much preferred to the alternate universe of Native America. There are rooms, meals, a blacksmith, a saloon, a general store, and a justice of the peace, as well as hay, feed, and a sheriff. But again, while not as hopeless as the town under siege in High Noon (1952), lingering tensions suggest that the surrounding wilderness it was carved out of stubbornly refuses to take the pioneers’s vain accomplishments to heart.
In addition to the town, there is the hideout where Arch is taken by force, causing Harry to go after him, and ride headlong into an ambush. The ranch is seen from different perspectives, depending upon the arrangement — a multi-purpose haven for marriage, friendship, misfits, and/or hired hands. And Hannah rules the roost. A unique Western, the film matches action to meditation in equal measure.