I want to discuss the use of visual elements, specifically close-ups, and their effect in conveying meaning in The Left Handed Gun. The film seems to focus largely on Billy’s internal state and his psychological/emotional turmoil. Penn expresses this internal state through techniques in framing certain key shots a particular way and paying special attention to moments alone with Billy rather than action sequences.
When we are first introduced to Billy, we see him staring in a spaced out way, not really looking at anything, possibly deep in thought. Penn pays particular attention to this aimless gaze, giving Billy several key close-ups. The first one I noted came after his employer dies and Billy tells his plan of avenging his death to McSween. The camera dollies in on Billy’s face to a close-up. The room is dark and there are shadows on Billy’s face. In the same frame on the bottom we see a magnifying glass or some sort of glass object through which the image is distorted. This key close-up marks a transition towards darkness in Billy’s character, which is also reinforced through other stylistic elements such as the changing of Billy’s wardrobe from light to black. This scene has weighted significance given the symbolic meaning of glass in the Bible quote Billy has learned from Tunstall – “through a glass darkly” – conveying the distorted view through which Billy views life from that moment on.
Other key close-ups I noted express Billy’s fear of death and his eventual destruction. In one scene, before Charlie is shot, Billy is approached (I forget by whom and unfortunately didn’t note it – I believe it is Pat Garret) at his hideout shack. Penn has another close-up on Billy here as he talks and does his undirected stare. As he talks, Billy supports himself by a short rope that is hanging off the porch frame, his hands meeting the rope next to his neck. I believe that this is Penn’s way of showing what Billy is both destined for and afraid of: being hanged. Later, after Charlie is shot and Billy is alone, we have a scene in which he plays Charlie’s(?) old recorder then looks out a broken glass pane on the door. The close-up frames the hard angles of the shattered glass in the center of Billy’s face, signifying both his inner turmoil and his imminent doom.
Between these key close-ups, Penn gives us other clues as to Billy’s tragedy and to his internal state. In a scene in which Joe Grant draws on Billy, Penn frames a particular shot with Grant and Pat Garret in the foreground, looming large, and Billy in the background, small in comparison. This reflects Billy’s fear of being outdrawn and killed by larger, older men, and his insecurity in not being able to draw fast enough. Right afterward we see Billy practicing his draw with his left arm. In another shot towards the end, as Billy enters the town that he will eventually die in, the camera frames a shot of him coming into the town on his horse with the structures of the gate largely encroaching on Billy’s space in the frame. This suggests the way in which the forces that are to bring about Billy’s death are encroaching on him and suffocating him.
Another thing I wanted to point out about the film was the violence. For the most part, the violence was rather tame – people got shot, they covered the wound with their hand, and they fall down and die with no blood – but there are two scenes in which the violence, for me, was exceptional. The first instance is in the death of Charlie. When Charlie gets shot at first, he does not die instantly. When he is first shot, he lies on the ground paralyzed from being shot in the spine. He then tells Billy, “I feel my blood,” which I thought was particular since it brings attention to the actual physical and horrific nature of being shot and it also prolongs the death so that we as viewers really have to take it in and watch him die slowly. After Billy throws a type of tantrum, he throws Charlie out the door and he is shot again, this time flying through the door, and dies. The seemingly exaggerated way in which Charlie flies through the door from the shotgun is seen again in the most violent scene in which Billy shoots a pursuer with a shotgun from the roof of the building he was held prisoner. This particular shot very much reminded me of the violence to come in The Wild Bunch, particularly the opening scene. When Billy shoots the shotgun, the camera captures it in slow motion – again, we are told to examine the violence. Not only do we see the impact of the shot slow motion – he victim also flies back – but we see the exit wound and all the blood in it, the bullets tearing the flesh in the most explicit way seen in the film. When the townspeople come to the scene of the shooting a little later, we see that the victim was literally shot out of his boot. This seems like a very symbolic gesture on Penn’s part, to suggest possibly that the new revisionist Westerns and their violence to come will knock the traditions and conventions out of the boots of the old Westerns.