After making a strong directorial debut with 1971’s Play Misty for Me, Clint Eastwood decided to put his stamp on the genre that originally made him famous as an actor: the Western. Yet instead of simply churning out a moralistic shoot-’em-up in the John Wayne mold, Eastwood made High Plains Drifter, a creepy revenge tale so heavily allegorical it might actually be a ghost story. Considering this was only his second directing job, Eastwood’s artistic ambition is impressive. Yet while the movie is brisk, nasty, and stylish, it has major narrative weaknesses. One big problem is that the protagonist is a cipher—we never learn the character’s background, name, or true motivation—and another is the way the movie fails to clarify whether onscreen events are happening in “reality” or taking place in a supernatural netherworld. Eastwood gets points for attacking heavy themes, but his inability to bring everything together is disappointing.
The story begins when a character referred to as the Stranger (Eastwood) rides into the lakeside frontier town of Lago. He gets into a hassle with a group of thugs, and then kills all of them with his frightening gunplay. Impressed, the townspeople ask the Stranger to plan an ambush: Three murderers who have just been released from prison are pledged to ravage Lago, so the townspeople are terrified. Courtesy of (confusing) exposition and flashbacks, we learn that some time ago, the murderers slaughtered Lago’s do-gooder sheriff while the townspeople watched—and that the tragedy stemmed from a conspiracy related to the mine from which the town derives its livelihood. Furthermore, Eastwood’s character may or may not actually be the sheriff’s reincarnation and/or spirit—never mind the fact that no one recognizes him.
Anyway, the Stranger is given carte-blanche throughout Lago, so he installs a local dwarf (Billy Curtis) as the new mayor/sheriff, seizes a local tramp (Marianna Hill) as his personal concubine, and makes the townspeople paint all of Lago’s buildings red so the town looks like a vision of hell. This sets the stage for a showdown with the murderers, although the townspeople start to wonder if their “savior” is worse than the killers he’s been hired to fight.
The gist of the piece is painfully obvious right from the beginning—the people of Lago are being punished for their sins—but the script, by Ernest Tidyman, muddies the narrative waters. The Stranger is a bloodthirsty, crude, sarcastic outlaw capable of violent sexual assaults, so it’s not as if he’s the personification of justice. Therefore, the movie has virtually no morality on display, making it difficult to care what happens to any of the film’s characters. And since the movie doesn’t compensate for this deficit by providing a tidy parable, what’s the point? Still, High Plains Drifter looks great, especially during the moody nighttime scenes, and Eastwood surrounds himself with interesting faces. Curtis stands out as the town’s perverse voice of conscience, and Eastwood favorite Geoffrey Lewis is effectively odious as the leader of the murderers.
High Plains Drifter: FUNKY