Motion/Captured Must-See: 'High Plains Drifter'
We all get the Hell we deserve.
Is there any doubt about whether or not this is a horror film?
Because it totally is. That opening shot... a man and a horse seeming to materialize out of this haze, and that ghostly score... clearly, something bad is coming.
And that something is Clint Eastwood.
And the town of Lago is not ready.
It's easy to forget now, since this film is 36 years old at this point, but this was a young man's film. Eastwood had only made one other movie as director when he made this one, and Ernest Tidyman had only worked on a couple of movies. Of course, Eastwood's first film was "Play Misty For Me," which was pretty damn good, and Tidyman's first three scripts were for "Shaft" (based on his own novel), "Shaft's Big Score," and "The French Connection," which won him the freakin' Oscar. So, uh... yeah. Not bad. And that creative chemistry between this young director/actor and this screenwriter, significantly older, who came from a journalism background, led to one of my favorite films out of Eastwood's entire career. It looks like a Western, it's structured like a revenge picture, but it's a straight-up ghost story, and a great one.
[more after the jump]
"High Plains Drifter" is a lean, nasty little bit of business. For Tidyman, it's a script that lives up to his last name: every detail in it carries weight, and when the film's over, everything's wrapped up neatly, with an ending that punctuates what has been kept ambiguous up till that point. Keep in mind... this is about a decade after Eastwood became an international star in Leone's "A Fistful Of Dollars," which was loosely based on Kurosawa's "Yojimbo." That's a story about a mysterious stranger who drifts into town and plays two warring families against each other, hiring his services out to both of them. And there are elements of that in "High Plains Drifter" as well, but it's more like this is the story that gets told afterwards, after the two families both did terrible things to that mysterious stranger, and they've been living with those terrible things ever since. And now there's another mysterious stranger. And he's sort of familiar. And he's got a chip on his shoulder and murder in his eyes. Tidyman's script plays with archetype easily, and it's a nice extension of the sort of thing Eastwood did as the Man With No Name. By this point, he'd already filmed all of those movies. He and Leone had pretty much wrapped up their relationship by this point. And so much of Leone's approach seeped into what Eastwood was doing, but he also seemed strongly influenced by Don Siegel, his mentor here in the States. That tension between those two influences, two very different styles of filmmaking and storytelling, is one of the reasons I think Eastwood's always had such an interesting voice as a filmmaker. He could have had a much more mainstream and safe career, but he seems to have always been drawn to material that pushed buttons, that quietly demolished genre or expectation. He didn't make overt arthouse movies, but many of his movies work as more than "just" entertainment, precisely because he seems so willing to play. "High Plains Drifter" is bold and wild and strange, practically an experimental film by this genre's standards.
Take that great ride into town at the very start. The way Eastwood milks the moment is by going with only natural sounds. No score. No dialogue. And no one's even remotely subtle. As Eastwood rides in, they all stop and stare, all the men and women of Lago gaping at him like morons. It's a long, uncomfortable sequence, and Eastwood keeps it freaky all the way through his character going in for a shave, then having to face down three men who follow him into the barber shop. It's only at the end of that sequence that he finally allows his character to speak, to show any sort of reaction. Until then, he's been this thing that everyone else has been reacting to, and barely reacting at all himself.
Many of Eastwood's early films as director, and the films he's chosen as actor as well, feature some pretty dicey gender politics. I think he's a relatively progressive guy, and I think he's also got an old-fashioned he-man women's-haters club streak a mile wide. It's possible to be that sort of walking contradiction. Doesn't make Eastwood a bad guy. It just makes movies like this one or "Play Misty For Me" or "The Beguiled" or "Tightrope" interesting to watch and consider. There's a rape scene here that builds on one of the core ideas of "Straw Dogs" and just races right past it in terms of potentially offensive behavior. A woman's rape turns into a moment of passion in an entirely ridiculous moment, but it doesn't bother me as much as it probably should because everyone in Lago seems like a straight-up creep, that woman included.
And sure enough, everyone in Lago is a bit of a creep, all of them sharing a secret that they're afraid Eastwood will discover. Of course, he may already know far more about it than they realize, and that may be why he's in town. And that's where the horror movie vibe kicks in. Eastwood can do things in this film that seem impossible. He's like a birthday candle that won't go out when you blow on it. He just keeps getting back up, driven by pure rage and revenge. It's only once he's done what he sets out to do that he heads back out into that hot Western haze.
What makes this different than something like "Pale Rider," which closely mimics this film in many ways, is that the character in "Pale Rider" seems to be working for a higher justice, protecting people who need it. No one gets protected in "High Plains Drifter." He doesn't show up in Lago to help anyone or to save anyone. He shows up to make them all pay. Every last one of them. Some of them have to die. Others have to suffer. But all of them have to pay, and when you see why, it makes sense. They are indeed cowards and bastards and men of low character, and they deserve him. They deserve what he does to Lago when he paints it red. They deserve the insane night that unfolds, leaving buildings burnt, bodies stacked, and the right blood finally spilled. He's not a hero in the film. He's an echo, the last pangs of violent conscience for a town that gave up its soul.
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