Movies & TV / Columns

From Under A Rock: High Plains Drifter

May 8, 2018 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
High Plains Drifter
The 411 Rating
Community Grade
Your Grade
From Under A Rock: High Plains Drifter  


Clint Eastwood is popular for his portrayal of anti-heroes. This week we dive into a movie where he’s downright villainous, yet still portrayed as who we’re supposed to root for in a very interesting approach to a Western.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Aaron chose Hero. This week Michael takes Aaron out from under the proverbial rock to show him High Plains Drifter.

High Plains Drifter
Released: April 19th, 1973
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Ernest Tidyman
Clint Eastwood as The Stranger
Verna Bloom as Sarah Belding
Mariana Hill as Callie Travers
Billy Curtis as Mordecai

Michael Ornelas: In order to discuss what makes this movie interesting, we’re going to have to dive into heavy spoilers, so….SPOILER ALERT FOR THE REST OF THE COLUMN. You’ve been warned!

Aaron Hubbard: I’m not sure how I feel about this one. I’ve tended to be underwhelmed by Eastwood as a director and this wasn’t really an exception.
No One Wins with Revenge
Michael: So while it doesn’t reveal itself until you piece the clues together by the end, this is a revenge flick. Clint Eastwood plays the ghost of a marshal who was killed in the middle of the town of Lago, and no one intervened or did the right thing because they were worried about how saving the marshal would effect their wealth, as he was there to regulate their mining/mineral rights. So he comes back, rapes the women, ruins businesses, destroys personal lives, and then leaves them high and dry to an attack from recently released murderers. It’s all revenge and nobody ends up looking good in the film, really. There are only a few that get out alive, and they were the ones who at least lifted a finger (unsuccessfully) during the marshal’s murder.

Aaron: And unlike most revenge movies, the guy going out for revenge hardly feels like a hero. Indeed, he may be the most evil bastard in the movie. It’s certainly different and I guess a thoughtful take on more classic revenge movies, but I’m not sure who the target audience is supposed to be, especially in 1973. Westerns were in decline by then, but I don’t think America was clamoring for nihilist takedowns of the genre either.

Michael: I’m not sure either, but it makes for an interesting watch in 2018. There’s so much going on here that I at least have to commend Eastwood for how well he intermixed several complex ideas.
Deconstructing Western Tropes
Aaron: What stuck out most to me throughout most of this film’s runtime was how it’s similar in structure to The Magnificent Seven or A Fistful of Dollars but very different in tone. The plot of a town finding a hired gun to fend off bandits is pretty common in the Western genre (and even outside of it), but this feels like a dark deconstruction of that idea. Eastwood’s character does defend the town, sort of, but he’s mostly just there to torture and destroy it himself.

Michael: This had a Western setting and story backdrop, but at times, it dips into thriller/horror territory which is why I loved it so much on my rewatch. Dee Barton’s score is haunting, setting the tone and hinting at the identity of Eastwood. What stands out to me is how unWestern the movie actually is despite all the pieces being there.

Aaron: One thing that stuck out to me was that the Stranger is kind to exactly one group of people; the persecuted. He gives blankets and candy to Native Americans. He’s also kind to the dwarf he makes marshall/governor. I thought that was an interesting detail, particularly in regards to the natives. In a way, this can be seen as an indictment of the whole pioneer mindset; Eastwood is doing to a western town what western towns were doing to Native Americans. I don’t know if I buy into retributive justice as a good thing, but it is there if one wants to interpret the movie that way.
Painting the Town Red
Michael: While not exactly subtle, I loved the literal use of the expression “paint the town red”. The Stranger was delighting in his spree of screwing over Lago, and he was recklessly enjoying himself at everyone else’s expense. It was like the grand finale of his revenge, and he treated it like his magnum opus.

Aaron: I wondered what the hell that was about but it does seem to be very literal. It certainly makes for a unique and interesting visual palette, and I also enjoy how it sort of telegraphs the hellish ending of the movie. This might be the closest this film dips into outright parody.

Michael: Seeing Lago with “Hell” painted over it may be the most memorable visual of the whole film. I appreciated it as a “go big or go home” visual from Eastwood, and I think it delivered something unique.

Aaron: High Plains Drifter was interesting but mostly unpleasant viewing for me. Eastwood has always been a workmanlike director whose movies usually lack much artistic flourish, but get by on good scripts and the moody, depressing subject matter. This was pretty good but not great for me.


Michael: I felt similarly on my first viewing, but revisiting it, I appreciated seeing how well it all came together. This resonated much more with me and may be my new favorite Eastwood film.


Aaron: I don’t think anything will top Unforgiven for me in the pantheon of Eastwood-directed movies.

Michael: Another great one. For some reason though, this really got me on the second watch. I’ll probably dust it off again in a few years.

How do you feel about Eastwood’s directorial filmography?

Next week:

Aaron: Next week’s pick is a certified classic, one of Akira Kurosawa’s most acclaimed films and one I can’t wait to discuss.
Michael: I only know the film’s name and reputation as a great, but nothing of what actually happens. I’m jazzed.

Aaron: Oh awesome. I’m pretty happy about that, since it’s a very plotty movie.

How do you remember Rashomon?

E-mail us at [email protected]
Follow us! @FUARockPodcast
Like us on Facebook!
And follow Michael on Twitter! @TouchButtPro

Check out our past reviews!
Mission: Impossible, They Live, Marvel’s Daredevil, The Silence of the Lambs, 12 Angry Men, The Usual Suspects, The Boondock Saints, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Iron Giant, Fargo, American Psycho, 28 Days Later, Frankenstein, Crank, The Godfather: Part II, American Beauty, Rocky, Alien, Spaceballs, Star Wars: Clone Wars, The Muppets Christmas Carol, Reservoir Dogs, Superman: The Movie, Lethal Weapon, Double Indemnity, Groundhog Day, The Departed, Breaking Bad, Shane, Glengarry Glen Ross, Blue Ruin, Office Space, The Batman Superman Movie: World’s Finest, Drive, Memoirs of a Geisha, Let the Right One In, Apocalypse Now, Aliens, The Incredible Hulk, A Clockwork Orange, Chicago, Seven, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, The Room, Chinatown, Jaws, Unforgiven, RoboCop, The Legend of Korra – Book One: Air, Ghostbusters, Spider-Man 2, Prometheus, Scarface, Gattaca, Monty Python & The Holy Grail, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Equilibrium, City of God, The Graduate, Face/Off, Snowpiercer, The Exorcist, Hellboy, Village of the Damned, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Idiocracy, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Fly (1986), Under the Skin, Die Hard, Dredd, Star Wars Holiday Special, A Christmas Story, Snakes on a Plane, The Big Lebowski, Bulworth, Raging Bull, Thank You for Smoking, John Wick, Mulholland Drive, The Karate Kid, Lucky Number Slevin, The Searchers, Black Dynamite, Labyrinth, Rick & Morty, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Abyss, Seven Samurai, Bio-Dome, Memento, L.A. Confidential, Tangled, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Wonder Woman, The Way Way Back, Rebel Without a Cause, Predator, Before Sunrise, Evil Dead II, Planet of the Apes, Wet Hot American Summer, Tombstone, The Core, American Graffiti, León: The Professional, Steel, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Logan, Tusk, Ghost in the Shell, Twin Peaks, The Artist, The Thing, Little Shop of Horrors, Day of the Dead, Them!, Borat, The Handmaiden, Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels, Watchmen, Metropolis, A Knight’s Tale, Children of Men, It’s a Wonderful Life, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Contact, Before Sunset, Bernie, Edge of Tomorrow, Boogie Nights, M, Ip Man, Jessica Jones (Season 1), Flash Gordon, 10 Things I Hate About You, Clone High, Oldboy, Bowfinger, Caché, Battlefield Earth, Hero, High Plains Drifter

Aaron is now on Letterboxd!
Check me out here to see my star ratings for over 1,000 films. Recent reviews include A Quiet Place and Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
High Plains Drifter is a cold-blooded revenge movie disguised as a Western, with elements of supernatural horror as well. Eastwood's always compelling onscreen presence and a solid cast brings a lot to the film in terms of performance, while his workmanlike direction presents an unsettling story as is. It's not a happy movie but makes for compelling viewing, especially on rewatch.