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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 25.35%
Average: 9.86%
Pretty Bad: 4.23%
Total Crap: 4.23%

3 reviews, 53 user ratings

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High Plains Drifter
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by Jay Seaver

"A great, gothic western."
5 stars

For the modern audience, Clint Eastwood and the western genre are more or less synonymous. Oh, the casual film fan is well aware that John Wayne made a lot of them, and maybe that John Ford directed a lot of them. And every few years a new one comes out, but it's a gimmick, or a curiosity - it's part science-fiction, or it's something where the star or director thinks doing a western would be neat, even if they don't really know the first thing about the genre. They spend a lot of time trying to overcome their genre, because there aren't really western fans any more. A movie being set in that time period doesn't really lead to anticipation.

Unless Clint is in it.

Eastwood got his start in westerns, and even though he has gone on to create a diverse body of work as both an actor and a director, he's the only guy left where the audience just assumes comfort with (and knowledge of) the genre. So it's interesting to consider that High Plains Drifter, the first western where he was the director as well as the star, seems to be where everything about the genre changed. Part of this is just because of when it was released: Film was evolving in the 1970s, becoming more realistic and less idealized, and this film from '73 sucks the romance right out of the Western, finishing the deconstruction that the spaghetti westerns had started. The film's setting is a dirty, violent town populated by nasty people with dark secrets; there's not a hero to be found here. Drifter also seems to be a fairly early example of the genre-bending trend.

Not that it was the first movie to be "more than just a western"; there had been comedy-westerns (Support Your Local Sherriff), musical-westerns (Paint Your Wagon), and anachronistic-adventure-westerns (TV's The Wild, Wild West). And Eastwood doesn't explicitly lay out that he's crossing genre barriers - some in my audience didn't quite grasp that High Plains Drifter is gothic in more than just tone. Combining this different aesthetic with a different kind of story could have yielded a mess; instead, it results in a movie that combines the intimacy of a gothic thriller with the expansiveness of the West.

The movie opens with an unnamed stranger (Eastwood) riding into the town of Lago. Even before he arrives, the town is on edge. Three gunmen try to murder him while he visits the bar and barber; the stranger calmly dispatches them. That is, admittedly, defensible, but the manner in which he has his way with Callie Travers (Marianna Hill) marks him as dangerous and of questionable morality. Still, his skill with a gun is valuable, and Lago's most prominent citizens - including the mayor (Stefan Gierasch), sheriff (Walter Barnes), and the representative of the mining company that employs most of the town (Jack Ging) offer him a job: There's three outlaws being released from jail, and Lago will be their first stop. The town would sure appreciate it if they were dead. The stranger reluctantly agrees to take the job, after the men promise him "anything he wants".

That the townsfolk aren't giving the stranger the whole story is a given, although he isn't exactly forthcoming with details about himself. We get to see his dreams, though, and it's through those sequences that we realize he is more than some random drifter, but is in fact intimately involved in the town's story. Eastwood gives a remarkable performance, taking a character than many actors would have made a pure symbol of justice or revenge and making him multifaceted. He makes his character cold and apparently heartless, with even his rare jokes infused with a casual cruelty. The only person in the town he really seems to get along with is the bullied midget, Mordecai (Billy Curtis), and even that appears to serve mainly as a way to torment the other townspeople, while setting Mordecai up for nasty retribution. The only indication of kindness in him is when he tells the Mexican workers to stay away from a town gathering.

Most of the cast will come off as unpleasant during the course of the movie. Even Mordecai seems to be a little suck-up, taking too much joy in his new position as the stranger's sidekick. The outlaws are at least up front about their goals and methods, though they're too violent to be likeable as honest crooks. Any sympathy we may have for Calie comes from her being violated by Eastwood's character, and even then... Well, one should never say a woman has that coming, but she's a part of the town's systemic rot, and the type of bully who relies on there being lines a man will not cross. As much as rape is indefensible, there is some satisfaction in seeing her taken down a peg. That we're able to feel somewhat conflicted about that is what drags the audience down into this world's murky morality. We're forced to confront the question of which repugnant acts are justice, which are revenge, and which are what is necessary to survive in a harsh world. The audience ponders it much more than the characters do, for certain - only the innkeeper's wife (Verna Bloom) ever seems to worry about what is wrong, as opposed to what hurts her personally.

This is the second feature Eastwood directed, but he's clearly learned well from the directors he worked for as an actor. The unforced style he's come to be known for is already present; there's never a point where the characters feel less than authentic. He also knows how to make his visuals work. There are several shots of Lago from above that are low enough to let the audience see the town's geography but wide enough to emphasize its isolation, which allows the audience to believe that these things could happen without accountability. The dream sequences are suitably unreal without the overt use of visual tricks. The red-tinged finale is apocalyptic without ever feeling unreal.

The American Western, with its romanticized frontier and good guys in white hats, was already dying by the time Eastwood made "High Plains Drifter". Eastwood's dark, R-rated quasi-ghost story wasn't its death knell, but after watching it, a viewer might be hard-pressed to go back to the hammier, less challenging westerns Hollywood was making just ten years earlier.

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originally posted: 06/17/05 05:48:36
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User Comments

8/03/20 morris campbell good western with a touch of the supernatural 4 stars
8/23/13 David Marsden A dull,slow and unlikeable film.Nothing likeable about it. 2 stars
8/24/12 Ed Clint brings the smackdown. Good old fashioned western revenge. 5 stars
12/29/10 W.B.T.Neeley A great, sinister take on the western genre. 5 stars
5/16/10 foster kane IIts certainly different .Bu that doesn't mean its good 2 stars
3/16/10 harry lime Nasty ugly vomit inducing film film 1 stars
9/02/09 good fella Vastly overrated. Not a likable character in the whole film 1 stars
8/05/09 chicken george Pretencious crap.Thank God he finally got it right with Unforgiven 1 stars
7/09/09 art A DEEP WESTERN! 4 stars
6/03/09 B C Chandler Typical of the early zombie eastwood westerns. Later when he learnt to talk films improved 2 stars
11/20/08 Colleen H I'm not a fan of westerns, but this one was tolerable because of Clint Eastwood. 3 stars
10/31/08 tiffany pettey clint eastwood makes any movie he is in good 4 stars
11/13/06 Sugarfoot Not the best western ever, the best movie ever. 5 stars
9/25/06 Keith Watton Good movie, but too much whipcracking under the saloon stuff. 4 stars
6/17/06 Glenda K Lake Clint Eastwood brings you back to the days when Hollywood men were just that, MEN! Not the 5 stars
5/20/06 Jack Sommersby The best Western ever made, and Eastwood's best film, too. 5 stars
5/19/06 mr.mike clint's best 5 stars
3/23/06 John Kucher one eastwood's finest and overlooked gems, was as good as pale rider badba pale rider was 5 stars
3/19/06 MP Bartley Ranks alongside the best of Leone and Unforgiven 5 stars
6/23/05 Eric Rollins Great "Twilight Zone" twist at the end. Classic. 5 stars
4/23/05 Indrid Cold Very bizarre, entertaining western. The equal of the Leone movies. 4 stars
11/19/04 Rodney Hale One of my all-time fav's. Right up there with The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. 5 stars
8/02/04 Yellowjacket Bob Puts a chill near the cockles of my heart every time. Love it. 5 stars
6/15/04 John the closest Clint Eastwood has ever come to make an American "Spaghetti Western" - 4 stars
10/20/03 Alan Rarely is revenge handled quite this well. Just plain mean. 4 stars
7/09/03 Sam Moszynski A little mean spirited, but still a top notch western. 4 stars
1/02/03 mongo the best eastwod movie ever !!!!! ive worn out the tape had to buy it on dvd 5 stars
12/31/02 Jack Sommersby The finest Western ever made. Colorful, comic, and suspenseful. 5 stars
10/24/02 Charles Tatum Mean and overlooked 5 stars
10/14/02 Watcherofthe WheelofTime Great! Eastwood Is Nemesis personified! 5 stars
9/28/02 Sébastien Dion Top notch 5 stars
6/07/02 Joe Levy Good, horrific, fun. But you are still a loser Vidmar! 5 stars
6/01/02 Steve Walker This is a near perfect masterpiece 5 stars
5/31/02 R.W. Welch Clint is a little ornerier than usual but otherwise undistinguished. 3 stars
3/04/02 P. Blevins Sophmoric film, all of the pieces are there for a masterpiece but the final product isn't. 3 stars
10/18/01 kevi waldron Ernest may by the only reviwer who realizes Clint plays the part of a ghost 4 stars
8/09/01 Chuckmole A really good flic. What goes around comes around. 5 stars
5/24/01 Aaron Hanson High Plains Drifter is the dark side of High Noon. If you like Noon, then see Drifter! 4 stars
5/07/01 Desert Eagle just average, nothing more 3 stars
1/12/01 Skip A guy gets his revenge, and that's essentially all there is to this movie. 3 stars
11/28/00 Cristopher Revilla good horror-western, but it was kinda interesting that everybody in that town was so pussy 5 stars
11/15/00 Benjamin Ansin A nasty combination of western and horror! The devil's back in town! 5 stars
8/17/00 Sinan Karasu Best of Eastwood.Attempted remake "Pale Rider" 5 stars
8/16/00 Eddie Bastard Wouldn't call it a perfect film, but it's way interesting. Even today, it really holds up. 5 stars
5/19/00 tank A rare fusion of horror and western. Terrific stuff. 4 stars
10/10/99 SJKelley Fresh, original western. Horror blends with Western. 5 stars
7/03/99 Jukka Nurmi Brilliant depiction of an avenging spirit! 5 stars
6/19/99 Christ Monkey I like Jar Jar. 5 stars
5/19/99 Lucas jackson i like when the devil comes helps the town out and then paints it red and calls it hell 5 stars
2/22/99 little jerry The film that shows what's inside The Man With No Name.Beautifully strange. 5 stars
12/01/98 Silent Rob Pale american imitation of Leones 'Dollars' Trilogy. All flavor, no substance! 3 stars
11/29/98 Carlos Tafur pretty good film, it anticipates the mood of Pale Rider and Unforgiven 4 stars
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  02-Jul-1972 (R)


  02-Feb-1973 (M)

Directed by
  Clint Eastwood

Written by
  Ernest Tidyman

  Clint Eastwood
  Verna Bloom
  Mariana Hill
  Mitch Ryan
  Jack Ging
  Stefan Gierasch

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