Tuesday, June 26, 2012

High Plains Drifter


High Plains Drifter
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Billy Curtis, Geoffrey Lewis

I can see it now. Orson Welles and Luis Bunuel are at a bar, having spent the night drinking whiskey and big pink fruity cocktails. Luis looks over at Orson and says, “Why haven’t we ever made a movie together?”

“Ooh, we should totally make a movie, Luis! Let’s do a western!”

“Sure! What should it be about?”

“A desperate tale of revenge, filled with morally reprehensible characters who spend the entire movie torturing one another.”

“Sounds good, Orson. But I’ll only do it if the sheriff’s a midget and we stage a big picnic at the end and the entire town gets painted red.”

“Brilliant, Luis! Let’s do it!”

Well, how do YOU explain how High Plains Drifter got made?

Clint Eastwood’s second outing as a director is a heady brew indeed. I’m really not lying about the plot description. Revenge, torture, midget sheriffs, bizarre picnics… and yet, it is high praise indeed that the two directors I’m comparing Eastwood to here are Welles and Bunuel.


A man with no name (Eastwood) appears out of the heat wave of the desert and rides into the town of Lago. After demonstrating proficiency as a gunfighter, the town hires him to protect them against three desperados who are coming to wreak havoc on the town. The only way that the gunfighter agrees to this, however, is if the town gives him anything he wants. He takes this carte blanche and quickly proceeds to dismantle the town. He keeps his word and protects the town, but not nearly in the way they were expecting.

Thing is, the town isn’t exactly populated with innocents.

There is something immensely satisfying watching this mysterious stranger ride into town and exact such a methodical and vicious revenge. He is so blatant in his punishment, so vicious in his actions and yet so calm in his demeanor. What sets this performance apart from Eastwood’s more well-known Man With No Name role is his apparent lack of conscience. The Man With No Name seemed to always be operating off of a basic moral code, but the character in this movie seemingly has no such code. It’s as if Eastwood took the characters he had played in previous westerns and then turned off any internal compass.

The fascinating thing about this film is that the above isn’t actually true. The mysterious stranger is actually acting upon an intensely honed sense of justice and right and wrong, but it takes awhile to understand why, or to what end. As the story unfolds and his intentions become clearer, the film starts to transcend the western genre and becomes something far more fascinating. The film raises some pretty damn serious moral issues, and no character in the film is left blameless or unaccountable. When a western, of all things, has me reevaluating certain events from my life, you know you’re dealing with a film that goes beyond typical.

I must say, Eastwood is also pretty damn sexy in this movie.

The production of the film is fascinating. The first 8 minutes are virtually silent. There’s music over the opening credits, but as soon as the mysterious stranger arrives in town, all soundtrack music drops away. There is nothing but the clopping of hooves as the stranger rides his horse through the town. People stop and stare. Silence. It’s incredibly disconcerting, and a fantastic way to reel the viewer in. The lighting is ugly and harsh and unforgiving and absolutely perfect, given the overall tone of the film. Characters are shot in shadow, then in light, then back in shadow. Eastwood uses such creativity in the use of light and sound in this film, it’s damn impressive. For so early on in his directorial career, it’s even more impressive, and incredibly ballsy. Definitely reminiscent of Orson Welles.

The more films I watch, the more I begin to understand my own taste in film and what exactly I like, and what turns me off. Rewatching High Plains Drifter, and enjoying it immensely, made me realize that I enjoy well-written vicious characters doing horrible things to people. Perhaps because I’m a goody-goody in real life, I enjoy seeing meanies on the screen. That’s one of the reasons I love film noir so much (and there is certainly a vein of noir running through High Plains Drifter). I’ve also found that I enjoy films where a little bit of insanity is unleashed (but not too much – there is such a thing as too far off the deep end… El Topo, anyone?). High Plains Drifter is a fantastic combination of the two. It’s definitely unhinged and bitter, and yet it manages to deliver a dramatic knockout punch to the gut in between all the midget sheriffs and town painting. It is a surprising revelation in the crossover genre of western-horror-noir-acid trip-morality play.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

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