For the most part, Weird Westerns are a genre that preclude genuine goodness. Usually, it's not so much a quetsion of whether a movie or story is good or bad, but whether or not it is enjoyable. Some are bad but fun, some are just plain bad. But the odd one emerges that is genuinely good. Clint Eastwood's directorial debut demonstrated an acumen that could only be gained by an already extensive career in Westerns under the tutelage of the genre's greatest names. From Sergio Leone and Don Siegel he learned the dramatic cinematography and the necessary restraint to make High Plains Drifter one of the most subtle and eerie of the Weird Westerns.
The film opens with one of Eastwood's signature lone gunmen riding into the town of Lago, filmed against the desolation of California's alkaline Mono Lake. The Stranger enters the saloon for a drink, whereupon he is threatened by the guns hired by the local mining outfit. They trail him to the barber shop, each receiving a lead trepannation. While the town is busy boxing the corpses, he rapes one of the townswomen in a barn and makes himself at home in the hotel. Now without protection from the three hardened outlaws with a vendetta against the town, the folk turn to the Stranger for help at any price. At night the Stranger's dreams are haunted by the image of Lago's former Marshall being whipped to death by the same three outlaws, and nobody lifting a finger to stop them.
The price for the Stranger's help is steep. It is taxed out in booze and dry goods, and in a string of outrages and humiliations. He appoints the town dwarf as the new sheriff and new mayor, dismantles buildings and redistributes property, alternately fights off and beds his rape victim, and literally paints the town red. In preparation for the arrival of the outlaws, he rechristens the town "Hell" and lays out a sumptuous BBQ party for them. The Stranger is being paid to repel the outlaws who killed the Marshall, but he almost seems to be conducting an indiscriminate vengeance against any and all.
High Plains Drifter is, as I said, a study in restrained storytelling. It stands in stark contrast to the lengths that Western movies today feel the need to travel. It may truly be said that many modern Westerns - at least the weirdest and the biggest budgeted - are not so much Westerns as they are action-adventures in a Western setting. The film does not lack for episodes of violence, but they are beautifully framed and choreographed to the point of being art. They are subdued and leave that much greater an impact.
The second exemplary discipline of restraint is in the nature of the Stranger himself. Original drafts explicitly stated that Eastwood's character was the brother of the Marshall, played by Eastwood's stuntman. Rather than condescend to such banality, the actor-director wisely excised this notion. In its place the viewer is left with the obvious but unsettlingly unresolved conclusion.
Devoid of flashy gimmicks, computer effects and stop-motion dinosaurs, High Plains Drifter is one of the most artistic, accomplished and accessible of Weird Western films. It is not something that all Weird Westerns have to aspire to, since there is just as much to be said for entertaining action-adventure flicks that are a fun bad, but it does transcend a ghetto mentality to be one of the best Western movies, period.