Directed By: Clint Eastwood
Written By: Ernest Tidyman, Dean Riesner (uncredited)
Produced By: Robert Daley
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Mariana Hill, Billy Curtis
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 105 minutes
Review Date: February 25, 2011
As someone who watches quite a bit of westerns, and even studied the genre to a degree in college, High Plains Drifter is one of my personal favorites, an easy classic, and certainly a landmark directorial attempt for Clint Eastwood. While not the high water mark for the revisionist genre that Unforgiven was, and not as technically brilliant as Pale Rider, High Plains Drifter marked the beginning of Eastwood’s bending of expected western archetypes as continued in those films.
This is an early example of the “Weird West” subgenre, a fusing of the Western with, in this case, the occult or supernatural. Eastwood plays the Stranger, a rugged gunfighter appearing out of the haze of the desert and stumbling into the town of Lago, where he may or may not have unfinished business — left over from another lifetime. If that premise doesn’t do it for you, I don’t know what will.
High Plains Drifter was filmed along the shores of Mono Lake in California, whose exposed alkaline sands and craggy limestone rock formations are decidedly alien. The result is a production that is dreamy and surreal, aided by a ghostly synthesized score that sounds like wind moaning though a cave. The town of Lago reads like some final way-station for the damned, perched on the brink of a purgatorial void. For the majority of the film’s proceedings, we are limited to this place, only occasionally offered glimpses outward, through gaps between wooden buildings to the bleached white horizon of the desert beyond, or the unnatural blue abyss of the lake. The stark sense of place owes much to Eastwood’s unique selection of shots and vantage points, revealing just enough of the town to give us a sense of familiarity, but not enough to make us feel like we’ve overstayed our welcome. By keeping the action (for the most part) contained entirely within the town and its limited outskirts, Eastwood makes Lago seem like the last human settlement in existence, a rustic oasis in the middle of a bare, apocalyptic wasteland.
I like to think of this film as sort of an update on High Noon, or rather a “part two,” continuing its allegory of a community that remained silent while its members were blacklisted, with a more explicit, almost tongue-in-cheek approach. Both films feature a sheriff character betrayed and deserted by cowardly townsfolk who refuse to stand up to evil; this one assumes Will Kane died and came back as a vengeful ghost. Also, the townspeople don’t just vanish from the streets, taking refuge behind locked doors as in High Noon — they watch tepidly from the sidelines without raising a finger, occupying a very deliberate presence in the man’s death. I’m not surprised John Wayne turned down a role in this film, after his active participation in the blacklisting of High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman. High Noon came out directly in the midst of McCarthyism; John Wayne and Howard Hawkes made Rio Bravo as a response, and I like to think of High Plains Drifter as Clint Eastwood’s answer to both of them.
Eastwood’s “Stranger” is less the duty-bound, courageous Will Kane, and more the grim “Man With No Name” a la A Fistful of Dollars. It’s Eastwood at his most badass, a notion that was never far from my mind as I watched the familiar antihero character put three holes in three heads from a barber’s chair, slickly escape a hotel assassination attempt with a “dynamite” ace up his sleeve, and lasso a guy screaming into the night by his neck. As close as it is thematically to High Noon, this is a much darker story, about a Will Kane who went through the depths of hell and came out the other side changed. This one takes advantage of women, exploits the townspeople’s need for security and dependence on someone to do the job for them, and indulges in the town’s material offerings, all with a dark sense of humor. Although it’s left mostly ambiguous, there’s always a sense that his motivations are more sinister in nature.
Of course, a film as ambitious and experimental as High Plains Drifter is not without its flaws, and this is the kind of movie that’s better in retrospect than while you’re actually watching it. The mostly straightforward plot is marred by a few unwieldy scenes that raise the wrong questions — a casual rape committed by the protagonist, his continued objectification of the women in the town — as well as a few detriments to the minimalism aspect, such as a couple different shootouts that occur outside of town. The blood is also laughably fake, but I’ll let that one slide since this was probably one of the earlier instances of actual gore in a western in the first place.
Those problem scenes, however, will tend to be forgotten when reflecting back on the film as a whole — which I have to say, is just fucking cool. Other scenes, (the town “literally” painted red, “Hell” on the town sign, etc) will always override them in your mind’s eye.
Boasting some pretty iconic imagery, even as a derivative, revisionist film, High Plains Drifter is a unique western ghost story. You really can’t argue with its cultural significance (it was featured viewing on the syllabus for my Western class in college), or its sheer badass factor. If you haven’t seen it and you’re a fan of Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” from Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
Josh Medcalf is a freelance writer living in Chicago.