Highs Plains Drifter, newly available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, is a Western built out of other Westerns. From the opening frames when Clint Eastwood’s unknown character materializes out of the desert haze like an ill-tempered mirage, Eastwood, who also directed, is in conversation with the Western genre as a whole and with his own specific corner of the mythic west.
Just as in his star-making lead turn as another man with no name in A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood’s unnamed Stranger rides into a town made up of tense factions that are primed for violence. As in so many other Westerns, the townspeople are terrified in the face of oncoming marauders and bandits, and hope that this Stranger can protect them from what’s coming.
But right away Eastwood is working to darker ends than just another tale of hardy pioneers trying to make civilization out of the wild west. See, the small mining town of Lago isn’t a small idyllic community in need of rescuing. It’s a shit-hole filled with shitty people who deserve every evil thing ready to come down upon their heads.
And Eastwood’s Stranger is neither a white-hatted savior nor a grimacing antihero who will come through in a tight spot. He’s the wrath that these people have incurred, come to collect a debt owed in blood.
While the script by Shaft-creator Ernest Tidyman keeps its deconstructive streak close to the belt and eschews anything explicitly supernatural, Eastwood’s direction lays it all out, plainspoken truths that are nonetheless terrible for having been said so simply.
This is first and foremost a ghost story, and it’s a great one. From the moment Eastwood rides into town, every other performer is cranked to eleven and it sets a tone of unreality that makes it easy to believe that we’re not just watching another simple shoot ’em up but something that sits closer to the boundary of life and death, something that has more to do with the mystic and mythic qualities of the legendary west.
Post-Wild Bunch saw a streak of deconstructionist Westerns, before Blazing Saddles put a smirking bullet through the genre’s forehead, one that still hasn’t fully passed through. Drifter, coming out a year before Saddles, inadvertently makes many of the same satirical points that Brooks soon would about the common clay of the new west, only whereas Brooks used dynamite and a pie to the face, Eastwood uses a bitter scalpel.
The people of Lago may play at being hapless innocents beset by undeserved evil, but Eastwood spells out almost immediately that this town is rancid to its core, and virtually every single man and woman in it long ago gave up their soul. All that’s left is for everyone to pay back what is owed, and the Stranger is the ugly harvest they’ve all earned.
That ugliness manifests in ways that are everything from bloodcurdling to darkly comic, but it also comes through in places that are entirely regrettable. High Plains Drifter has always been a difficult film to recommend, in large part due to an early scene where the Stranger is accosted by the town tramp (there’s no other way to describe this character) Callie (Marianna Hill). He promptly rapes her in a truly appalling scene that plays the “she says she’s not into it but actually she is” card so aggressively that it might have made Sam Peckinpah. Everything involving the Callie character, including moments played explicitly for comedy, is horrifically offensive to modern eyes and it’s shameful that it ever played as anything else. Eastwood doubles down on the “no means yes” attitude later in the film, and it sucks then too.
Look, I try not to be a prude about these things. I don’t demand that all art be “politically correct” to modern eyes. You can have my Slap Shot Blu-ray when you pry it from my cold dead hands. But “no means yes” is the kind of awful, pervasive mindset that continues to cause untold damage for countless people across generations. The casual rape and sexual assault committed by Eastwood’s character in this film certainly fits with the misanthropic temperament of the picture, but it’s crass and smirking in a way that the rest of Drifter’s abundant, delicious cruelty never approaches. It doesn’t sink the entire movie for me, but if a person switched the movie off after that rape scene and said, “Nope, I’m done”, I wouldn’t try to talk them back into it.
Setting aside whatever we know, or think we know, about Eastwood’s personal life, his career as a star and filmmaker have shown a marked interest in playing both to and hard against his own image as the pinnacle of a certain type of man’s man, going back and forth from Dirty Harry to The Beguiled. And for his first film as a director, Play Misty For Me, he selected a movie in which he, Clint Goddamn Eastwood, spends much of the runtime being stalked and terrorized by future Lucille Bluth, Jessica Walters! And over the course of the Dirty Harry sequels and his many later films, you can see Eastwood interrogating his iconography through different lenses of race, gender, and time.
The Stranger is another opportunity for Eastwood to unpack his own persona, removing anything human or humane from his typical gunslinger and leaving only tough-as-jerky meanness and unstoppable rage. He’s genuinely frightening in this film, in a way he wouldn’t really approach again until the final moments of Unforgiven decades later.
High Plains Drifter’s demolishing of the cuddly Western myth was striking enough that John Wayne took a break from being a racist puke to call Eastwood out for dressing something so nasty up in the clothes of that most all-American of genres.
But time has caught up with High Plains Drifter. As we continue to reevaluate our relationship toward the myths that shape our modern American identity, here is a film that looks at a picturesque frontier settlement and sees only the blood and bones that had be buried in order to put up those friendly faces. Here is a film that sees those settlers not as vanilla bastions of civilization and society but as a hateful, infectious virus that took over and took root.
Tidyman and Eastwood took all that buried sin in, and then they gave the people the ghost that they deserved, and the wrath that they had earned.
Messy and genuinely unfortunate in places, High Plains Drifter is still something of a masterpiece, and a major moment in Eastwood’s career as both director and star. The Kino Lorber Blu-ray is beautifully put together, and more than worth a look.
Get it at Amazon: https://amzn.to/35CVbEP
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