Friday, January 8, 2010

High Plains Drifter

One of the interesting things about Clint Eastwood is that the films he directs don't necessarily match his screen persona. Here is a man who has made his name through feats of pure badassery, either in westerns or the Dirty Harry series, who has become the go to source for films which manage to hit a certain mix of sensitivity and understanding of his characters, especially lately. Now, he's not the most consistent director in the world - hello Space Cowboys - but he has managed the difficult feat of pleasing both audiences and critics, and often doing so with issues people might be uncomfortable with. Not everyone can make a movie following the Japanese at Iwo Jima which is mostly sympathetic, yet still manage to have it accepted in America. Through most of his films, one gets the sense that he genuinely cares about his characters, so even in his low points that impression overrides. So, here's High Plains Drifter, a film that sticks out in Eastwood's filmography, just because very little of what I just said applies.

Let's be clear here, this is not to say this is a bad film. On the contrary, I liked it a lot. However, unlike the majority of Eastwood films I've seen, respect for the characters within - with one or two exceptions - would have made it fall down completely. This is a movie which hinges on the audience not liking the characters at all, and if one does it loses a lot of what makes it great. It is, then, the bizarro Eastwood that must be behind the camera, though I like that one too.

So what's it all about? Well, there's a town called Largo which harbors a dirty little secret - a secret which I won't tell you, because I like surprises. Arriving in town is Eastwood, whose name, in spite of the IMDB's trivia section's claims, is never given - this seems to happen to his characters a lot - who proceeds to make everyone nervous. There is a good reason for this, as within moments of arriving he kills three people and rapes one woman. A normal town would think that this is a bad man, and should be arrested, but Largo doesn't, and hires him to protect the town from other bad men coming back after a year in prison, primarily due to that aforementioned secret. Eastwood takes the opportunity to make a series of increasingly ridiculous demands, and effectively turns the town in on itself. His relation to the town itself never becomes explicit, though it is heavily implied that there is one, and one begins to wonder what his motivations are and where they come from.

The ambiguity of the picture is one of the strengths, especially since there's no clear indication of how Eastwood's character knows what he does, or how he can pick out the characters which deserve saving and which deserve punishment. He's a mysterious force, arriving from somewhere to punish the sinners - which includes those who stand by and watch while bad things happen, without doing anything - and the town as a whole. As the town itself relies on others to do its dirty work for it, one gets increasingly certain that they should realize what they're doing to themselves, and all ill that comes out of his presence is well deserved. Here's a man who is introduced with rape and murder, how can they trust him and give him complete control of the place?

The film, in spite of a fair bit of violence, is clearly a moral tale. All of the mistakes made and punishment metered out is due to the inability of people to actually stand up for themselves. If they weren't weaseling around behind closed doors and hiring others to "solve" their problems, none of the events that transpire would happen. But, by refusing to stand up where it matters, they steadily destroy themselves and their relationships.

It also doesn't sound like any western I had ever seen. The look is standard Western material, naturally, though with significantly more red - painting the town red is somewhat less exciting and jubilant than the phrase generally implies - but the music isn't the standard guitar-based sound at all. In a bid to keep it slightly creepy and otherworldly, the soundtrack instead takes on an electronic sound - I think I hear theramins! - which sometimes even sounds appropriate for the original series of Star Trek. It's decidedly weird, but actually very welcome, since it emphasizes some of the more otherworldly aspects of the picture.

It's interesting, this little project has a tendency to meet people at a low point, and this is so much different than a regular Eastwood film that one might expect it to be continuing the trend, but I actually found this to be one of the high points. As strange as the film can be, and for how little it relates to how people currently know Eastwood's direction, it's really one of the most fascinating westerns I've ever come across. I'm not sure if my tastes have become completely apparent over the past year, but this is my favorite kind of movie. It's exciting, it's interesting, and it makes one think. I dare say it's one of the best movies I've seen.

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