A nameless drifter (Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven) suddenly appears in a small town, where his presence immediately makes residents nervous. After he proves himself handy with a gun, local leaders ask the taciturn stranger to help them with a trio of bandits who are expected to arrive soon. The mysterious man takes the job and…
Reaction & Thoughts:
“It’s what people know about themselves inside that makes ’em afraid.”
After the disappointing Joe Kidd (1972), Clint Eastwood adjusted his holster and came back with a vengeance (no pun intended). Here Eastwood uses the iconic “The Man with No Name” to make angry denunciations of various social ills. High Plains Drifter is a provocateurish western tailor-made for the cynical Watergate-era.
This was the second movie Eastwood directed and Freud would have had a field day analyzing Eastwood’s motivations for choosing this ugly western as his next directorial assignment. High Plains Drifter is a downbeat and brutal western, a film so filled with rage and hate that you may end up walking away from the movie to take a breath. It’s such a nasty piece of work that I wondered how it was green-lighted in the first place.
The film’s first scenes establish quickly that this isn’t your average mainstream fare. Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” kills three men (he shoots first) and rapes a woman in the first fifteen minutes. The rape scene feels gratuitous and Eastwood even goes as far as to suggest that the woman enjoyed being assaulted. Later, the gunfighter decides to take another woman by force (she too enjoyed being raped!). In spite of all that (maybe I need to join Eastwood on the psychiatrist’s couch), I kept rooting for the gunfighter.
To say that I’m conflicted about the movie is an understatement. I don’t believe in vigilantism and I definitely repudiate misogyny of any kind. Yet I found myself supporting a rapist and a vicious killer! Did I get hypnotized by Eastwood’s skills as a filmmaker? Maybe the cathartic nature of revenge is hard to resist.
High Plains Drifter tells a wicked wicked story of comeuppance. In all fairness to Eastwood, he was honest enough to present revenge as nothing but a primordial emotion. The movie never glamorizes vigilantism. Eastwood makes it perfectly clear that there is nothing remotely productive about getting even with those that have wronged us. He lets it all hang out in the open and it’s up to the viewer to embrace or reject it — it’s a shameless dare if I’ve ever seen one!
Much has been written about the identity of the mysterious gunfighter. Is he a ghost? Maybe. Is he the brother of the man he wants to avenge? That’s not a bad theory. There is also the possibility that this is a religious allegory: The Angel of Death sent to Earth by God to destroy the sinners. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that flagellation is a recurring motif in the movie, a nod to the brutal flogging of Christ?
It’s also hard to look at the movie and not think of Eastwood’s political views. He has a well-documented antipathy for the government. Perhaps with the exception of the military, from Hang ‘Em High and Dirty Harry to his most recent movies Sully and Richard Jewell, Eastwood consistently badmouths government agencies. High Plains Drifter can be interpreted as a condemnation of centralized government. In the end, each viewer must draw his/her own conclusions.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
I loved it. I hated it. I still don’t know how I feel about High Plains Drifter! There is no way this movie could be made today and perhaps that’s a good thing. While shockingly mean-spirited and almost unbearably cynical, this nightmarish western remains strangely enthralling and intriguing more than four decades later. Tightly written by Ernest Tidyman (The French Connection), moodily shot by Bruce Surtees (Play Misty for Me) and perfectly acted by a cast that includes Verna Bloom (The Hired Hand), Geoffrey Lewis (Salem’s Lot) and John Hillerman (TV’s Magnum P.I.), High Plains Drifter will, at the very least, give you a lot to think about. Color, 105 minutes, Rated R.