For a first feature, The Hired Hand feels very mature, its characters well-worn and lived in. Other than a few scattered ‘70s optical freeze frames, slower-than-usual dissolves, and one interesting campfire rear-screen that teeters on the edge of too much, Fonda doesn’t do a lot of the showing-off that plagues most first time efforts. He knows the movie’s in good hands with the Alan Sharp script, the beautiful scenery, the simple but effective Bruce Langhorne score, and most importantly Warren Oates as his brother in arms. He sets a solemn mood, builds the spare but effective story around it, and rides it steadily on home to an inevitable yet poignant conclusion.
Fonda and Oates play cowboys who’ve been riding partners for quite some time. You can feel the weight of every bad town they’ve entered, every night spent sleeping on the hard desert ground. When the movie opens, they’ve got a young partner in tow who gets into some trouble with a local married woman and is summarily shot. At first, Fonda and Oates seem like they’re going to let this lie, but then on the way out of town take some pop shots at two of the men responsible.
But Fonda’s character is sick of the wandering life and the gunfights. He decides to return home to the wife he left years ago (Verna Bloom). He plans to settle down and try to earn his way back into her good graces as a hired hand. Oates tags along with him, basically, because he doesn’t have anywhere else to go. But when Fonda gets there, he finds his wife is more bitter, hardened -- no longer a one-cowboy type of woman.
At this point, you’re suspecting a triangle of some sorts to develop between Fonda, Oates, and Bloom. Especially since it’s close quarters and none of them have had a whole lotta lovin’ in a while. But the movie digs in here admirably and stays close to its western roots, where people have “codes.” Oates realizes he has to ride off, and the story becomes more a story of friendship and hard choices, one of people who repress carnal desires…except, of course, the desire for necessary revenge.
Ten gallon hats off to Fonda for keeping this a simple heartland story. For one, there’s the casting of Bloom, not a conventionally “beautiful” actress. She has a hardness that lends authenticity to the fact that she’s playing a woman who’s lived alone for the last ten years raising a child on her own yet pining for the occasional drifters who would work her land. Just imagine if Fonda had caved and cast one of the hot hippie-chippies that were most certainly orbiting around him at the time. The movie could have so easily delved into porno territory…perhaps The Hired Gland.