There’s some damn weird shit going on here. A stranger rides into an isolated town, rapes one of the local women, bullies the local businessmen, shoots folk, and generally terrorises the townspeople until they hire him to protect them from three Very Bad Men ™ who are returning to cause mayhem after a stint in the pokie. In response, he anoints a dwarf as Sheriff, orders the townspeople to paint every building bright red and rechristen the town ‘Hell’, and sets out a giant picnic using every scrap of food the town has to spare……
High Plains Drifter is not your average western. It’s a metaphysical rumination on the nature of evil, and the deals that marginally-honest people will make to keep hold of power. It’s downright spiritual. It operates on multiple levels at once, taking a brutalist approach to themes of betrayal, power dynamics, and heroism. It is, at once, both repellent and utterly fascinating. Its surface layer is skin thin– the expendable loner versus the trio of obvious baddies– like High Noon seen in a fun house mirror. But the surface narrative is simply the delivery medium: what’s really being discussed here is something far deeper, and far more insidious.
Clint Eastwood has always been a master filmmaker, and his record as a total jerk of a human being is also well established. High Plains Drifter is a nearly-perfect vehicle for him– a psychological examination of extreme viewpoints, in which innocence is seen as weakness and the only strength comes from a toxic masculinity that eats the person wielding it, even as it reinforces the might-makes-right conservatism that we know is central to Eastwood’s world view. It is no simple western. It is a brilliant western, and its brilliance lies in the fact that its brilliance as a western is almost entirely irrelevant to its brilliance as a truly weird psychological horror story.
It’s a jaw-dropping piece of cinematic wonder, and I find myself returning to it on a regular basis, just to watch in awe as it remorselessly unfolds its weirdness. It is a perfect lesson in character development, and how to build a narrative from nothing but rotten materials.