I watched Universal's newly restored and remastered Blu-ray edition of Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter (10/15; Amazon) last night and before hitting play I'd actually forgot I'd seen it before until Eastwood as "The Stranger" came into view, riding into the small town of Lago where the duration of the film takes place.
Released in New York 40 years ago this past April, Drifter is an interesting one when compared to today's cinema, which is hellbent on revenge whereas this is a story of retribution... or is it? The citizens of Lago are made to pay for their past misdeeds while at the same time seeking protection from a trio of gunmen they previously watched whip their own town marshal to death after he threatened to reveal their mining town was actually on government land.
Riding into town looking for a whiskey, a shave and a bath, Eastwood channels his iconic "Man with No Name" and quickly finds himself in a bloody shootout, but it's the scene afterward that captures my attention. After gunning down three men, the Stranger is attacked by a woman (Mariana Hill) whom he proceeds to rape, an act just as, if not more, violent than the bullet wounds he inflicted only minutes earlier. Can such a man be considered a hero? Just how should the audience interpret him? We've only just started.
That night he dreams of a man being whipped to death, a scene we later come to assume he could have no knowledge of until he's told of the incident. The man who's beaten, we come to learn, was the town marshal, Jim Duncan, played by Buddy Van Horn, long-time stuntman stand-in for Eastwood. It was a casting decision that was made to possibly suggest the marshal and the stranger were related. The connection between the two men is suggested again late in the film when Mordecai (Billy Curtis) says to the stranger he doesn't even know his name, to which Eastwood replies, "Yes you do," as the camera then pans to the newly carved gravestone reading "Marshal Jim Duncan, Rest in Peace."
There's something of a supernatural air to these final words and the dream the stranger has, not to overlook the religious undertones throughout the film, least subtle being the painting of the town red and the word "HELL" painted over the sign that once welcomed visitors to Lago.
So is this a story of retribution and possible religious wrath, or is it a revenge story? The Stranger says Mordecai knows his name, is that to be interpreted literally or is this Ezekiel 25:17 in a nutshell?
And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the LORD, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.
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Curiously enough, if you do view the Stranger as a vessel of the Lord, exacting vengeance on the evil townspeople of Lago, what does that say of the Stranger raping that woman? What does it say of the murders that took place? Perhaps there is no definitive answer, nothing to make you entirely comfortable with what takes place. Perhaps that's the point.
High Plains Drifter has some issues with pacing and, at times, feels a bit mechanical and by-the-numbers, but the overall narrative is rather intriguing and the ambiguity it offers as to its thematic motivations and allegorical connective tissue make it a fun and fascinating watch.
FINAL NOTE: I don't own a copy of the previous DVD releases so I can't compare this new restored image with previous versions, but I can say it is bright and vibrant with plenty of detail. I didn't notice any overall extreme levels of DNR, but I'll be curious to see how others react to the image, which really does pop right off the screen.