The opening minutes of High Plains Drifter feel an awful lot like the opening minutes of every other western about a strong, silent type taking on a posse of bad guys. We watch The Stranger (Clint Eastwood, For a Few Dollars More) ride across a deserted plain while a Morricone-inspired score soars across the soundtrack. The man arrives in the small town of Lago, gets off his horse and mutters a few terse words. We've seen this character before in every other Clint Eastwood western, and we begin to feel that we're in familiar territory. Then, the rug gets pulled out: The Stranger murders three men in cold blood and subsequently rapes a young woman who had the nerve to talk to him.
The Stranger is neither a hero nor an antihero, but a straight-up villain. If that's not immediately apparent to every viewer, it's because The Stranger exists in a world every bit as corrupt as he is. The men he killed were bad men, and the town he's visiting is a bad town. The people of Lago are greedy, selfish, cowardly and bloodthirsty, leaving audiences members placed in the uncomfortable position of reluctantly rooting for Eastwood's mysterious, savage killer. It's an effectively nasty subversion of the western genre, and one that certainly inspired its share of controversy when the film was released. John Wayne despised the film, and expressed his feelings to Eastwood in a letter: “That isn't what the West was all about. That isn't the American people who settled this country.”
Eastwood directed the film himself, and his penchant for unsettling moral ambiguity proves one of the High Plains Drifter's biggest assets. He challenges the genre's conventional view of the west at every turn, serving up nihilistic counterpoint to familiar tales of gritty heroism in humble western towns. He further shakes up the genre by injecting a strong hint of the supernatural into the proceedings, slowly transforming what initially feels like a form of religious allegory into something more literal. In more ways than one, the film's final dialogue exchange is haunting.
Much of the plot centers around the town's fear of three outlaws just released from prison. The townsfolk have good reason to believe that the outlaws will bring death and destruction to Lago, and they quickly turn to The Stranger for aid. In response, The Stranger decides to toy with the town, forcing the impotent citizens into all sorts of embarrassing positions in exchange for his aid. There are moments in which the film plays like a black comedy; a portrait of the Devil playing games with his minions. Yet again, Eastwood resists satisfying the audience in any conventional way: the laughter has a way of curdling into something deeply unpleasant, particularly when The Stranger sneeringly gloats about how much women enjoy being raped by him.
It wouldn't take long for Eastwood's unique directorial voice to start shining through, but in High Plains Drifter that voice seems quite heavily influenced by the work of Don Siegel and Sergio Leone. That actually works in the film's favor, as we get an even greater sense of something familiar being subverted than we do in Eastwood's later “revisionist” westerns (the similarly mysterious Pale Rider and the great Unforgiven). Likewise, much of the Dee Barton score feels somewhat derivative, but listen to the way it opens and closes – with a strange, alien sounds that clash sharply with the horse opera setting. The sounds Barton conjures would feel right at home in a haunted house movie, but feel unnervingly jarring against the dusty landscape of High Plains Drifter.
This is a dark but compelling western, and a valuable reminder that Eastwood is one of the rare actors who knows exactly how to make the best use of his own image. He transforms his iconic, stoic presence into something profoundly ugly, spitting in the eye of the sanitized west Hollywood had peddled for decades. It's a film designed to make its viewers squirm in their seats, and a surprisingly intense examination of humanity's capacity for evil. “You're a man who makes people afraid,” someone tells The Stranger. He dismisses the notion: “It's what people know about themselves inside that makes 'em afraid.”
High Plains Drifter
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Year: 1973