Ride in the Whirlwind ★★★★

Ride in the Whirlwind’s plot features a series of misfortunes, misunderstandings, and random occurrences that accrue and lead inextricably to violence. It’s a tragic relay of blame and punishment: a band of outlaws face death for their crimes, a trio of innocent travelers get mistaken by vigilantes as participants in the unlawful crew, they go on the run and bring a shell-shocked family into the mess, and a guiltless old man dies. The film becomes a working metaphor for our lives, which play out under a death sentence whose date is never clear. As such, it pares away narrative until all that’s left is a pair of men sitting quietly in a room in the middle of nowhere, the better to put the emphasis on our onerous stall before the creep of twilight. The long back half at the ranch eliminates suspenseful intercutting to focus on the present-tense: two remaining cowboys enjoying their final hours in relative silence and comfort, an apologetic last supper, a reluctant game of checkers, the company of two quiet women. A stump is beaten repetitively in the background, the metronome of the family’s existence. When a bowl of water isn’t where it should be at a precise moment, it unleashes a wave of anxiety. Is routine a reprieve or a prison? On the one hand, there’s the patriarch’s corpse as evidence for the former. On the other hand, there are Millie Perkins’ haunted eyes, which suggest a soul stirred to curiosity by an unexpected encounter. Hellman’s gloriously textured, compact western plants such ambiguities right on the surface, which pays enormous dividends as the film funnels inexorably from plot to stasis.

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