Discussion of “The Hired Hand”

  [dir. Peter Fonda, (2003, Sundance; orig 1971)]

Text as delivered 10/15/04.
To be revised.  Not for citation without permission.

Stuart Taylor, MD


One can’t help but admire Hannah Collings: her resilience and resolve, her directness with her feelings, even her hardness and circumspection. She shows us moments of profound tenderness, she conveys her pain and, fleetingly, the hope she dares not indulge. She has made the most of a difficult social situation and a trying personal situation.  Hannah is magnificent.

On the other hand, this is a terribly depressing film. Death is written on it from beginning to end. A dead child, a dead adolescent, a dead (ghost) town. The protagonist, “dead” throughout the film, dies at the end. Even the characters who are not literally dead seem figuratively (emotionally, psychologically) so. What can we make of this?

American psychoanalytic theory has largely excluded death as a fact of life. It is almost as if psychoanalytic theory forgot its history after arriving in America, and, analogous to the cultural push westward here, was seduced by the prospects of opportunity, territory, and other riches and pleasures while repressing the dangers involved in such pursuits. 

Yet psychoanalysis may still be the best critical tool for understanding this film.  Feminist theorist Juliet Mitchell has remarked that if we want to understand the problems facing women, “we cannot afford to neglect psychoanalysis.”  She adds that Freud’s work in fact ‘is an analysis of partiarchal society, not a recommendation for one.’  Besides, both the western (as a genre) and psychoanalysis (as a practice) are about the law.

In fact, Freud wrote several major treatises on the law:

In 3 Essays, he talked about various sexual demands and the necessity of their inhibition at times.  Basically, ‘you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you find you get what you need’ (1969). One important corollary of this law is that frustration is important in establishing relationships and in causing desire.

In the Interpretation of Dreams and related papers, Freud showed how extraordinarily powerful and creative the unconscious mind is, as it seeks incessantly to recreate scenarios in dreams and in waking life in which dramas relating to sexual needs can be played out with various actors from a person’s past or current life. The basic law here is that one never tames the unconscious the way one can tame a horse.

In Totem and Taboo, Freud showed that psychologically the father has a special role in establishing the law and that if the paternal function is absent tragedy ensues. This is why Bobby Fuller’s  (1965) song, “I fought the law and the law won” sounds more like an anthem than a plaint.  If the law doesn’t win, we are symbolically and psychologically dead.

OK.  Freud discussed laws of sexuality, thought and culture. Certainly, in Hired Hand, we can see the articulation of sexuality and desire in various forms of expression, inhibition, “liberation” or simply disavowal.  The characters struggle to deal with the fact that they are sexual creatures.  And there is also the sense that beneath the gorgeous dreamlike imagery, the timeless pace and the manifest storyline of recognition and return, some uncanny drama is out of everyone’s control.  Talk about the return of the repressed, in their travels, these men return to that dusty ghost town on four separate occasions and every time, someone is mutilated. 

So I want to focus on men in this so-called feminist western, because I believe it’s not possible to talk about women (the converse is also true), or to figure out what feminism is without mentioning men.

Let’s start with that unsavory phrase “machismo,” since by de-emphasizing macho aspects of the two main male protagonists, the film calls attention to machismo as a cultural expectation and encourages us to wonder about that phenomenon.

Machismo is simply a reaction to the fact, which is generally overlooked—mostly because neither men nor women want to recognize it—that it is not easy becoming a man. Essentially, having a penis leads to various physical and interpersonal experiences as well as to social and cultural assumptions and expectations that put tremendous pressure on boys and men. 

For example, when I was in 4th or 5th grade playing little league baseball we were informed in a team meeting with our coaches and families that each player was required to wear an athletic “cup” in order to protect his “family jewels.” We weren’t sure we wanted to be the guardians of our families’ jewels—whatever they were—but I for one was very sure that I did not want to wear (what amounted to) a triangular plastic saucer strapped over my genitals. Both the requirement and the explanations for it were supposed to make us feel safer and more secure. But actually, it only highlighted the ‘burden’ of having a penis and testicles and underlined our vulnerability. In fact, they said that we might as well get used to wearing a cup since the size of both our genitals and our vulnerability would increase. Now, for those of you who have not had such an experience, next time you watch a baseball game—the “big leagues”—notice the uncomfortable bulges in the players’ groins (mostly the catcher and infielders) and their regular adjusting or “shifting the load.” Or for that matter, you could ask a close male friend about the day to day logistical problems of managing such a burden.

This is an example of what in psychoanalytic terms has been called the “phallic burden.” The concept was articulated nearly 20 years ago by one of our faculty members, Dr. Lila Kalinich, who coined the phrase at a conference on men. I learned about it in clinical supervision with Dr. Kalinich when I was working with a patient who was, as it happened, ‘on the run’ from his duties as a student and lover.  Let me just say parenthetically that the phrase does not currently appear in the psychoanalytic literature because Dr. Kalinich’s remarks at that conference were not in print and it is published here on our web-site for the first time.

Now, when boys reach puberty, and the pressures of hormones and social expectations increase, the phallic burden intensifies: they are expected to be strong and upright at the right times, to be able to perform with women. So, for example, Shakespeare’s Romeo, in a play filled with phallic puns and “macho” banter, finds himself unable to party with the guys, after he is rejected by Rosalind.  He says, “Under love’s heavy burden do I sink” (I.iv.22), following Chaucer and Rabelais in using “burden” for “penis” but here explicitly condensing weight or demand with the name of the organ.

All of this relates to Harry, for example, who tells us he “weren’t ready” to be married when he was "just turned" 20. We know that Hannah has a healthy sexual appetite and that Harry left soon after being married. Although surely more complicated, his reasons must have included this one.  After all, he suggests an asexual arrangement when he returns, and when he learns of Hannah’s history of paying the hired help with sex, we can wonder whether he is more upset about fidelity or that demands might be made of him. When they do eventually return to bed, Harry does not seem comforted. When Arch advises Harry that it’s time to start practicing to be a husband, Harry responds, “I’ll pick it up OK.”  It seems to me that the concept of the phallic burden is woven into this script.

Men are not only expected to become competent lovers, but also expected to be bear weapons, explore dangerous territory and situations, protect families and communities, contribute to values, fix things, and labor in a way that women generally are not expected to. No man in this film is capable of bearing such burdens.

Harry seems overwhelmed by these other ‘higher’ burdens; they too must have been part of why he left. But even though he now wants to get it right, that big pistol hanging down from his waist looks too weighty and unwieldy against his skinny body.  Aimless  Arch seems wiser and more competent, but he is one of the vaguest characters in the film and makes the colossal mistake of walking into a trap.  When it comes time to fight, each of these two men is wounded (castrated) and is graphically unable to bear the weight of his "piece" (weapon), aim and shoot effectively.  Dan too is unable to manage his “piece,” and dies for his failure. The vitality and pressure of Dan’s “piss and vinegar” (a phallic vitality long since drained away from Harry) is also weakened by his inexperience.  His righteous insistence on retrieving the little girl in the river, is swept away in the rapids of Harry’s cynicism.

As a society, we have become accustomed to recognizing “supermoms”,  and we appreciate, perhaps not enough at times, the costs and suffering endured by these women. But we know that, like Hannah Collings, they do suffer. However, we seem to have forgotten what we expect of men, and the perils they encounter trying to meet those expectations. In a current popular song, ‘Superman’ describes his anxieties and vulnerability and tells us, “I’m only a man in a funny red sheet, digging for kryptonite on this one way street… It’s not easy to be me.” Is any man anywhere capable of bearing the burdens we impose?

One crucial task of men, is that they establish the law. Now, let me clarify that by “the law” I don’t mean statutes or the police. I mean the collective of principles and conventions—codes of conduct—by which we live. So, in saying “the father establishes the law,” psychoanalysts mean that “no” is essentially the father’s edict—which establishes the general principle that there are things we don’t do or say, things we cannot have, etc. This canbe seen for examplein the case of  a mother whose authority is being challenged by a child, exhorting her husband, “will you please exercise your paternal authority” or telling the child, “just wait ‘til your father comes home.” In situations like this, the mother is symbolizing that a third agent stands for something outside the mother-child relationship.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, the primary law that is instituted by the father is the separation of the mother and child. This is essentially what Freud meant when he noted that the father asserts the incest taboo. This basic idea has been articulated in more contemporary language, and with the specific implications made more explicit, by a host of theorists such as Lacan, Kohut, modern Kleinians, and observational researchers like Fonagy, who have sided with Freud in claiming that this frustration or prohibition is necessary in the development of healthy mental functioning.  Coherent functioning of society also depends on this.

Now, a  major reason, that Harry, Arch, and Dan have trouble standing for what is right is that they are in fact, outlaws.  This is intimately tied to the concept of the phallic burden. How can one “stand up” for the law and be a role model if one is crooked or is burdened with guilt. The fact is that the story as we know it begins with a crime—incest. We know Harry’s marriage to an older woman was not culturally accepted then and there because Arch tells us so. “You didn’t stand a chance” alludes to conventions (laws) about marriage and sounds like a death sentence. A chance against what?  Harry’s “noble” defensive response to Arch’s remark is suggestive. How complicit was he in the taboo seduction?

In fact, the film is so full of Oedipal transgressions that one is tempted to ask if there is any law at all in the film. Dan’s demise is linked to an illicit seduction of an older married woman. Although Arch and Hannah never consummate the flirtations they share on the porch (at least not during this part of the story) the film’s ending suggests they will.

If the illegal nature of such acts weren’t clear enough, one need only notice that the stealing of women is repeatedly linked to the stealing of horses, a crime that was for many years punishable by death in America’s west. So, for example Dan’s seduction occurs in the context of stealing his horse.  And when Harry and Arch go to take back the horse, we are left wondering why Harry literally shoots the thief in the foot, an action straight out of Sophocles, which is tantamount to shooting himself in the foot, and later leads to his death. And need I point out that the film also ends with an Oedipal crime? Whose horse is Arch riding when he returns to Hannah?

Bravely, Hannah herself tries at moments to uphold the law, even to assume the phallic burden: she is sometimes “hard” but ‘she doesn’t want to be.’ Not only that, but she is also outside the law, complicit in the original and serial transgressions, including the one with which the film ends. Women can open a place for the law, they can facilitate it it’s instantiation, as the Mexican woman tries to do near the end when she literally leaves open the door of Arch’s cell. But she dares do no more for fear of her life. The dirty and deadly process of actually laying down the law is the burden of men.

Whoever heard of a western without a sheriff? In this film, the law is Harry’s job and we all know it, waiting for him to do right and set things right. So why doesn’t Harry finally, once and for all, when he has chances, assert what is right and lay down the law?

To understand this, I suggest we return to the beginning of the film. The dead girl on Harry’s line in the first scene is what stirs Harry, after seven years on the trail to return home. The decision is made by the next scene, within a day. It is not his wife, about whom he remembers only her voice, it is the repressed awareness of his child, a “little white girl” that stirs Harry.  But the dead little white girl floating by in the river is also a grotesquely mutilated phallus. She signifies for Harry, as well as for all of us, a lack: what is imperfect, what we have lost, that which we can do nothing about. For Harry, the girl signifies his paternity, and in that, his name. 

Forewarned by the omen of the dead little white girl, Harry needs for his own sanity and for Janey’s - to prevent their symbolic death—to return to his family and to inscribe his name there—the name of the father. The authority of the name of the father is the essential outcome of the phallic burden; it is the reason to bear it. But Hannah and Harry have previously  foreclosed this. He by leaving, she by psychologically killing him. Even after he returns, there seems no possibility of Harry re-entering the family as father. As far as we know there has been no elaboration on the cold fact of Harry's alleged death. Hannah is not now going to say to Janey, "Oh I made it up that your father is dead - Harry is your father." This would open too many questions for all of them, and would only subvert the law.  If one could lie about life and death, what is truth? Harry’s name as father is one thing he never gets back, despite the fact that the puritanical Bible-thumper Mrs. Sorenson, had actually offered Hannah some good advice: that she reclaim Harry as her husband and the father of Janey by name and in public (incidentally, this is another example of woman, here disguised as a caricature of the law, opening the way for the law—the name of the father).

One of the reasons that the film is so depressing is that it is utterly void of the law. As a symbol, the dead little girl is the ultimate feminized male, which we realize, apres coup, when she is replaced as a signifier at the end of the film by Harry’s emasculated body lying in a river of dust. With Harry’s real death it seems as if all hope of a symbolic life is lost.

In a strange way, however, the opposite may be the case. By Harry's actual death, for an understandable cause—not just to ramble, Hannah has another opportunity, and hopefully a new small place in her heart, with which to make him live for Janey. Harry is not dead for Janey because he is reported dead or is actually dead. He is dead because there is no narrative about him: eg, he was this or that kind of person, he came from here, he loved you, he cared about x, y, z, he was a complicated person because of this or that, etc. Nothing—that is death. If Goethe was right that we all die twice, once with our physical death, and once when memory of us dies, then Harry is truly dead, even when he is not actually dead.  Maybe with his death a narrative—words—can make him live for his child. Hannah might honestly tell Janey (and herself) that Harry was a good man, that he understood what was right and tried to abide that, and that he died saving a friend from bad men.   

When Harry is about to leave to try to rescue Arch, Hannah looks at him horrified, as if she were seeing a dead white girl. She tries desperately to put into words what seems beyond utterance. This is not the same Hannah who doesn’t need a steady man. She seems to recognize human lack. Will Hannah, following Harry’s real death be able to do what she could not when he was alive? Can she open the symbolic life of her family, to allow the name of the father to be inscribed there?