I absolutely love westerns. I find they're a genre filled with soul. Many shot with vintage anamorphic lenses, super wide, over-the-top close-ups and action, characters that are seemingly invincible and overly masculine. Many entries within the genre have something that makes them unique and stand out, even just a scene that stays within your mind days, weeks, even years later. For me, and many others, Clint Eastwood's titles are the ones that stay close in memory. Though, having not seen High Plains Drifter before, I went in completely blind.
High Plains Drifter is a strange western film. It's one that takes the protagonist and displays him as the worst possible kind of person. Typically, westerns portray their protagonists as either a hero or a vigilante with selfish ways but ultimately good direction at heart. They don't actively pursue the pain of others. With High Plains Drifter, it's the entire opposite. From the first few minutes we're seeing our protagonist appear in a small, quiet town and starting trouble, and even going as far as to rape a woman in a barn to 'put her in her place'.
These horrific acts have you disgusted at the drifter, our introduction to him is nothing short of negative, and with such acts, they can't even be considered to be justifiable, there's no "What if..." question that arises due to his actions. But shortly enough, we witness that the town is riddled with fragile, scared people. People that are harassed, and their sherriff recently murdered. These people long for a leader, and will do anything to get one. The drifter sees this, and immediately takes advantage: only agreeing to help protect them from the criminals by taking anything he sees fit from them, guns, a saddle, alcohol, and housing. Though an interesting piece of the storytelling is that we witness a kind act in which he takes from the townspeople and gives to the area's natives. After endless horrific acts, we see one small act of kindness, which starts to toy with the mind. Is there some humanity to this protagonist after all?
High Plains Drifter feels like a relatively slow film in which very little happens for a western, at least in its first half. We have a plethora of character development as we witness the townspeople and the drifter's exploitation of them, alongside some strange dreams which appear to display the murder of a sherriff in front of the townspeople; their cowardly ways reducing them to nothing more than observation of the act despite his cries for help. It's fairly safe to state that this film doesn't shy away from providing a generous share of hints to the viewer.
As the film progresses, and it continues to pull on the strings of your heart as you witness these townspeople being treated terribly, we begin to see the reality: these people are bad. They are selfish, cowardly, and act in their own interests. The exploitation of them begins to appear justified. Especially as we begin to witness the ways in which the town plots to murder the drifter despite his, well, mild attempts to help them protect the town.
The tale establishes itself as an enjoyable revenge story in which our drifter punishes the bad for their prior actions and rewards the very few good that have also been wronged. He plays a very physical and psychological game with the townspeople that results in more enjoyable shoot-outs and action sequences given their scarcity and use more in the climax of the film. Which is certainly more refreshing given the nature of most popular westerns. And it's particularly fun to see a more supernatural take on a revenge story, and one from a very dated era for thrillers and horrors.
While the film's story and structure isn't perfect, it does the job well enough for it to be worth the watch. It definitely isn't as memorable as others in the genre, but in a way it is nice to be able to see a Clint Eastwood film that isn't so crazy with music and artistic cinematography at every moment. Though I'd have to admit I prefer Eastwood when he isn't directing.