High Plains Drifter (1973)

2011 #36
Clint Eastwood | 101 mins | TV | 18 / R

High Plains DrifterThat this is the first Western directed by perennial Western star Clint Eastwood is enough to make it worthy of note. To be honest, I’m far from immersed enough in the history of Westerns to know if anything else makes it worthy of note either; but I did like it.

The film doesn’t begin how one might expect. Clint rides into town — OK, that bit you would — has a beer and a bottle of whiskey — OK, that bit too — kills three men for no good reason and rapes the only woman in sight. Hm. It’s a fine introduction to our ‘hero’. But instead of setting the sheriff on him, the townsfolk bend over backwards to help him (more or less). Why? Are they as uncaring as he? Or do they need something from this capable man? Turns out, a bit of both.

As the story progresses we get a gradual unveiling of a mystery in the town’s past, hinted at in flashbacks and dreams; who was responsible for it, what the others did about it — or didn’t do. It’s all revealed nicely across the course of the film, leading to a finely staged conclusion in a vision of Hell. Eastwood’s real motivations for taking the job of protecting the town become clearer… that is, clearer while still remaining mysterious. There may not be definite answers to all the questions, but some people here need punishing and Eastwood’s come to punish them.
Rope, for catching drifters
That said, tonally it’s quite odd. There’s a lot of violence and horrid behaviour, but it contrasts with a lot of dismissive humour. The raped woman attempts to kill Eastwood in revenge while he’s in the bath — not a tense stand-off, but a chance for a joke. Similar things occur when he abuses the privileges given to him by, say, tearing down the barn. Shades of grey are all well and good, but this juxtaposition of light and dark is a little too high-contrast.

Clearly Eastwood has a taste for the mystically-tinged Western, as here he’s even less coy about the story’s supernatural possibilities than he would be 12 years later in Pale Rider. Not by much, perhaps, but it’s nonetheless clear that he’s some kind of angel/devil/ghost/natural force: he emerges from the heat haze like a mirage, and disappears back into it too; he dreams of past events before he’s told about them; and he has no name, of course — this is an Eastwood Western, after all. That’s not to mention the ton of mentions of the devil, Hell, the dead not resting…

Lago - HellEastwood’s first Western in the director’s chair is obviously influenced by those he’s worked with when on the other side of the camera, but by making sure the mix is a bit dark, somewhat ambiguous, but also gratifying in turns, he crafted a supernaturally-tinged revenge tale that packs a few satisfying punches.

4 out of 5

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