Classic Review: High Plains Drifter

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A daring, somber film that employs Hitchcock-style storytelling and continues Clint Eastwood’s darker revision of the West.

Review:  For those of you who have seen the classic 1952 western ‘High Noon’, you will recall that its hero, a sheriff played by Gary Cooper, defeats four bandits in a small town but subsequently leaves it, presumably forever.  The reason for his departure was that the townspeople themselves did not support the sheriff in his efforts.  Though he pleaded with them for help to fight these men, they backed out of it, and left him to defend the town alone.  And so the Sheriff leaves in anger and disappointment at those who were not willing to help themselves.

The reason I mention this is because this is an early example of the de-glorification of the West.  The spirit of the pioneers, traditionally portrayed as courageous and humble, is instead shown as cowardly and, by extension, selfish.  By failing to stand up against the antagonists of the film, the town folk in ‘High Noon’ become quasi-antagonistic themselves.  It’s a more complex, albeit sadder spirit for westerns, and it must have been a surprise to people in 1952.  ‘High Plains Drifter’ in 1973, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, takes this vision one step further.

The opening of the film appears normal enough.  After the credits, accompanied by some notably eerie music, a stranger (Eastwood) wanders into the dusty western town of Lago and is immediately confronted by three loud-mouthed gunmen who threaten to kill him.  Of course this is a Clint Eastwood movie, and a quick shoot-out silences them forever.  The town then petitions the stranger to stay and defend them against three more outlaws who were arrested in the town some time earlier but are soon to be released from prison.  After much convincing, he agrees.

Much like ‘High Noon’, the people of Lago are spineless.  Even with guns in their hands, loaded and pointed at the outlaws as they ride into town, not one of them has the conviction to shoot.  Unlike the people of ‘High Noon’, however, the people of Lago are not just cowardly.  They also harbor a terrible secret, a gruesome murder for which the whole town, driven by greed, is guilty.

It is the total destruction of the Classic Western Spirit that Eastwood explores in this movie.  What was suggested two decades earlier as cowardliness is now realized in 1973 as spineless avarice.  Absent here are the hardworking, courageous, and noble people whom we’ve come to expect from the West.  Gone is the glorification of Manifest Destiny.  Gone is the belief that the settlers brought morality and true civilization to the wilderness.  Clint Eastwood dares to show the dark side of the pioneers: settlers too afraid to do what is right and selfish enough to break any law of God or Man.  Here is a world where the people themselves are their own worst enemies.

Clint Eastwood took his already-then fabled Man With No Name character to a new, dark depth in this film.  In addition to his gruff attitude and fast draw, there’s something strangely mysterious about him.  He has a ghost-like quality; something quasi-supernatural.  The climactic showdown at the end, in which only his silhouette is seen, only adds to this mystery.  He’s not simply a stranger anymore; He’s something more.  A force of nature itself; a roaring tempest guided only by the winds, exacting vengeance where he sees fit, be it on outlaws or the town folk.  Never before and never since have Eastwood’s nameless drifters held such power and wonder simultaneously.

Simply put this is an excellently executed film.  It feels truly original and, though somber, is wonderfully engrossing. The film’s inherent darkness and great mystery, as well as a key twist at the end, are evocative of Hitchcock’s work.  If Alfred Hitchcock had ever been in an ominous sort of mood, he might have made a film like ‘High Plains Drifter’.

In short, ‘High Plains Drifter’ is another great Western from a man who was famous for reinventing them.  At times is suffers from being a bit too intense, but overall it’s fine craftsmanship shines through to the end.  This is one of the grittiest, most somber Westerns ever made, but if you can handle it, it’s worth a watch.

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True Grit (2010)

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A classic Western story told with refreshing perspective.

Review: I grew up with classic Westerns, mostly of the television variety. ‘Bonanza’, ‘Gunsmoke’, and ‘The Rifleman’, among others, helped shape my sense for storytelling, first through innocent admiration, and then through critical distance and deconstruction.  The Wild West is quintessential American mythology and so overused.  The Western genre long ago went stale to my taste, with only a few stories cleansing my palate and proving its enduring potency.  Among these have been films like ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’, ‘Unforgiven’, the remake of ‘3:10 to Yuma’, and now the Coen Brothers’ rendition of ‘True Grit’.

‘True Grit’ looks and feels like a movie out of time.  It’s appropriately gritty and realistic, but lacks the revisionist cynicism often associated with Westerns of the past few decades, allowing it to keep the ethics and themes of the source novel without repentance.  If I had to boil it down to one word, it would be “classic”.  Like most of the Coen Brothers’ output, it seems destined for that appraisal in posterity.  In style and substance, the film far exceeds genre expectations, lending humanity and thus complexity to every character, realism to the violence, a nigh-surreal level of beauty and variety to the settings, spitfire dialog loaded with archaic phraseology, etc., etc., etc.  The Coens are masters of character development, and it shows, even within the simple archetypical roles at play.

Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, played by John Wayne in the original film and here inhabited by Jeff Bridges, is in this film closer to the real gunslingers of the old West than the kind of folks Wayne played in his career.  He’s simultaneously cowardly and heroic, an object of pity and admiration, a man with a bloody reputation that doesn’t exceed believability.  He’s sought out by a 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross, whose father was murdered by a two-bit villain named Tom Chaney, and she wants the Marshal to aid her in her quest for justice.  Hailee Steinfeld, the young actress who brings Mattie to life, is better than most established thespians.  Not only can she deliver the complex, straight-from-the-novel dialog with the best of them, she makes you believe that a young girl of her intelligence and spunk might just accomplish her goal.  Since the film’s related entirely from her perspective, we experience the familiar Western imagery and scenarios through fresh eyes.  I make special mention of these two, but the other characters and the actors that play them, down to the smallest role, crackle with the fires of life.

It’s often said that reality is unrealistic, and ‘True Grit’, by hewing close to real-world consequences, has a sense of unfamiliar unpredictability that is entirely refreshing.  We may scoff and declare that the violence on show is the stuff of Hollywood, but stranger things have happened, and ‘True Grit’ is a reminder of this fact.  Details that are often scuffed over in cinema, such as the particulars and limits of firearms, get embraced here.  My favorite moment of realism is when a man stands on top of a hill, viewed from afar, and when he fires his pistol in the air, there is delay to allow the sound to reach our ears.  I recall saying “Wow!”, since even something as simple as sound delay is a rarity in Hollywood films.

Of course, all these trappings are meaningless without a strong story with resonant themes.  The narrative thrust is the stuff of classic Westerns: A murder sparks a manhunt, based on nothing more than the bereaved’s wish for vengeance, and the law looks high and low for the villain, a journey culminating in a bloody firefight.  As I mentioned before, the refreshing factor is Mattie Ross’ naivety, which shatters her illusions of simple retribution and exposes her to the terrible results of such an adventure.  It’s a brutally truthful coming-of-age story.  Often revelations of the harsh, dangerous world mark childhood’s end.  The only way to overcome it is with other people, even people we despise, though as Mattie learns, our efforts may still yield bittersweet endings.  This reality requires true grit.

This film is a total pleasure to watch.  Exciting, funny, scary, and sad, it’s a classic Western adventure, and best of all it’s actually quite accessible, despite all the things I said about its requisite grit.  I look forward to seeing ‘True Grit’ again.