Acid Western is a subgenre of the Western film that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s that combines the metaphorical ambitions of critically acclaimed Westerns, such as Shane and The Searchers, with the excesses of the Spaghetti Westerns and the outlook of the counterculture of the 1960s. Acid Westerns subvert many of the conventions of earlier Westerns to “conjure up a crazed version of autodestructive white America at its most solipsistic, hankering after its own lost origins”.
The term “Acid Western” was coined by film critic Pauline Kael in a review of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film El Topo, published in the November 1971 issue of The New Yorker. Jonathan Rosenbaum expanded upon the idea in his June 1996 review of Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man, a subsequent interview with Jarmusch for Cineaste, and later in the book Dead Man, from BFI Modern Classics.
In the traditional Western, the journey west is seen as a road to liberation and improvement, but in the Acid Western, it is the reverse, a journey towards death; society becomes nightmarish.
The Western pictures of Hollywood director William A. Wellman may have been an early influence on the genre. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and Yellow Sky (1948) feature characters that are forced to step out of society and take a stand against it. Yellow Sky in particular set up many elements that director Monte Hellman picked up two decades later.
Monte Hellman’s cult film The Shooting (1966) could be considered the first Acid Western. The film stars Will Hutchins, Warren Oates and a young Jack Nicholson, and was anonymously financed by Roger Corman. The Shooting subverts the usual priorities of the Western to capture a sense of dread and uncertainty that characterized the counterculture of the late 1960s. Hellman quickly followed up with Ride in the Whirlwind (1966). Screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer is considered “the individual most responsible for exploring this genre, having practically invented it himself in the late ’60s and then helped to nurture it in the scripts of others”, such as McBride’s Glen and Randa, Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, Cox’s Walker, and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.