Sunday, May 29, 2011

Shootout at High Noon: Pale Rider

Pale Rider (1985, Clint Eastwood)

It would never be a true western film marathon without inclusion of a Clint Eastwood endeavour, no would it? One of, if not the most, iconic figures of the genre since its beginnings, regardless of decade (he has starred in westerns over the course of four different decades!). Clint Eastwood, who will be referred to as ‘Clint’ for the remainder of the review because he is has earned that level of coolness, is an interesting figure when it comes to this particular genre because he has both starred in and directed such movies. If there is any man who understands what it takes to make a western from beginning to end, it must be Clint.

Apparently Clint adheres to the philosophy dictating that if something is not broken, then there is no need to fix it, because Pale Rider sticks very much to the plot of some his most memorable western adventures. The story takes little time in sending the viewer into the thick of things, as from the opening moments a small gathering  of tin pan gold miners are ambushed ruthlessly by thugs employed by Coy Lahood (Richard Dysart), a hungry business man also in the trade of gold digging, albeit with a bigger budget and more sophisticated engineering. LaHood has tried to acquire the land via lawful means, but to no avail, and therefore now utilizes intimidation in the hopes that the small community will flee. After this horrific ambush, young Megan (Sydney Penny) prays to God for a miracle...which then appears in the shape of The Preacher (Clint Eastwood) a middle-aged man riding on a white horse who poses as a man of God yet handles has the instincts of a cold-blooded hunter. He quickly forms a helpful yet stand-offish bond with Megan step father, Hull (Michael Moriarty), as well as the other members of the community as they struggle to earn a living and remain on the land LaHood wants so badly. 

With each additional Clint directed film I watch, the more I am under the impression that dissecting them is a trickier and trickier proposition. Clearly, the man loves telling stories. Most of the time he is telling rather good stories too. That being said, if anyone reading this has seen at least a few of Clint’s films, then you have surely recognized that certain specific  elements keep coming back again and again, some of which are not that strong in fact. Such seems to be life when it comes to this director’s films. The sad part of it all is that it can render certain films loaded with potential, potential for true greatness, a lot worse than they should have been. For that reason, Pale Rider is a rather infuriating movie watching experience even, by the end credits, I had still thoroughly enjoyed the picture. 
Let us make at least one thing clear, when referring to Clint directed films, it is those which also star the man himself, meaning films the likes of Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers are excluded from the discussion. Other films of his, such as Blood Work and Gran Torino, kept coming back to mind the further Pale Rider’s story evolved. There is something simultaneously enjoyable and head shake worthy about the movies he directs and stars in. No matter the time period, no matter overall plot, he is always the lone intelligent, virtuous, super cool character. He always has a witty reply to what another person (most likely either evil or dumber character) says, always appears just in the nick of time to save someone, always outmuscles (regardless of how old he is) and outsmarts people who are supposedly super bad-asses themselves, etc. The author wants to be clear, many times this aspect of Clint’s films are fun, but after seeing a few of those movies, it does start to show signs of ‘wear and tear.’ The awkward twist about noticing these things occur in Pale Rider was that I had not seen the film before but has already watched Blood Work and Gran Torino, two films made several years afterwards, so discovering them in the film under review today produce a ‘Huh, so he’s been doing this for years!’ reaction. I felt like the kid who thinks he has discovered a really cool cartoon or movie and then is told by his dad that there is nothing new about it because it is just a remake of something from the 80s or 70s. But I digress. The character of The Preacher works just fine as he is, especially with that stiff swagger Clint frequently brings to his characters, but was not very original. Not that pure originality was a perquisite for to me like the film more than I did, but lacking in originality because I had seen the same director play essentially the same character in essentially the same movie many times before.
There are some other issues that handicap Pale Rider as well as several other films he has directed, the biggest culprit being the dialogue. It felt as though the any person who had interesting things to say was in fact Clint playing the Preacher. Everybody else, from Hull to Megan, even to LaHood, was rather plain. There were times when the dialogue exchanges really became grating, such as when Megan confesses her love for The Preacher, only to storm off in a fit when the latter refuses to return the feelings. She even tells him to go to hell. Ha, ha, telling a preacher that he can go to hell. Ironically enough, another scene which felt very weak was when the object of Hull’s affections, Sarah (Carrie Snodgress) confesses her feelings to The Preacher. Maybe Clint does not do strong emotional scenes well?
Having now bashed the film sufficiently, I imagine it is the only fair to offer some positive thoughts. For one, the cast is very interesting and doing the absolute best with what the material they have to work with. Richard Dysart actually has good screen presence as the chief villain in the story, playing the role with a false sense of calm and gentlemen manners. In reality he is a furious jerk who wants nothing more than to crush the pestering little community constantly in his way. LaHood remains in his office for much of the picture and for that reason seems perhaps less important and ominous than he should, but when on screen Dysart is a lot of fun. The same can be said about young Sydney Penny, who really gives it her all in the part of an impressionable teenager falling in love with someone she does not truly understand. The character is headstrong almost to a fault, and Penny seems to understand this. John Russell, as the corrupt lawman by LaHood to kill The Preacher, gets a raw deal however. In terms of screen presence alone, I felt as though he matched up with Clint really well, but he gets such little screen time that the opportunity for a truly memorable rivalry sails by as the minutes tick away towards to the end of the film. 

I am as far removed from being a religious man as can be. Once the film was over it was decided to read about its production and themes, a little bit only, just to inform the review a bit better. I came across mentions of religious overtones and more specifically Christ-like references, but admittedly almost none of them reached my brain while viewing Pale Rider. That may very well be a testament to the film’s quality rather than being a negative aspect. On the whole, I enjoyed the character of The Preacher and especially his mysterious nature. I understood that he may very well have been a angel sent from God (after all, he does emerge out of nowhere immediately following Megan’s prayer...), but as for everything else, it pretty much flew over my head.
I feel as though most of the energy that went into this review concentrated on the film’s negatives, thus giving the impression that Pale Rider was a poor movie. To be honest, that is not so. It just is not very impactful. I do not see myself re-watching this plenty of time in the years to come. The story is fine, if predictable, the characters are fine, if predictable, the development of the plot is fine, if predictable, the dialogue is pretty bad in several scenes, Clint is pretty cool, which is also predictable but in a good way...Despite its flaws, it still is pretty serviceable, although Clint has done much better before and since.

Done Here? Find out what happened when Bill rode into town to deal with the seedy business men at his Movie Emporium.


Anonymous said...

I've always liked Pale Rider even though it's very reminiscent of High Plains Drifter and is an obvious homage to Shane.
Like you I'm not sure about the religious/supernatural element of this film I just enjoy it as a solid western.
Nice write up, now I think I'll mosey on over to The Movie Emporium to see what Bill's got to say.

Anonymous said...

We shall have words my friend, we shall have words...