Sunday, December 12, 2010

Pale Rider (1985)

A small group of honest, hard-working gold diggers under the unofficial leadership of Hull Barrett (Michael Moriarty) is in dire straits. Evil industrial gold mining tycoon Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart) wants to own the land they are panning gold on, and he isn't too particular on how to make the change of possession happen. LaHood has been sending his men (and his no-good son, played by a young and sleek Chris Penn) out to terrorize the diggers and lets his men rough them up when they come into the assortment of about a dozen buildings that go under the description of "town" here.

Apart from the fear for life and limbs, the digging hasn't been going so good for Barrett's group either, so the first families are starting to leave his fold for less dangerous and more lucrative pastures. Fortunately, Barrett's adopted daughter Megan (Sydney Penny) has a direct line to the big director in the sky. The girl prays for a miracle, and a few hours later a two-fisted, nameless preacher (Clint Eastwood) with an obvious dark past as a gunman rides into town.

The preacher fastly sides with Barrett and his people, even when LaHood calls in the evil, easily financially incentivized "marshal" Stockburn (John Russell) and his men to take permanent care of the miner situation. Stockburn just happens to be an old enemy of the preacher's (the film suggests he either killed the preacher or at least shot him and left him for dead), which probably makes it a bit easier for the nameless man to change his collar for a gun again.

The best thing I have to say about Pale Rider is that it isn't the worst film Eastwood appeared in (that would probably be one of the films with the ape), though it might very well be the worst one Eastwood directed himself. There's so much wrong with the film it's hard to know where to begin.

So, let's start out with the film's worst sins against my brain. Pale Rider leaves an at times ridiculous, at other times deeply unpleasant impression of something that just might be Eastwood's version of masturbating in front of a mirror; seldom has an anti-hero been so perfect, and his purported self-doubt been more perfunctory and unconvincing. Men either adore him or are killed by him, and all two of Michael Moriarty's women - hopeful wife and fifteen-year old daughter - want to fuck him. At least Clint does shy away from the daughter, but that still leaves us with a film that's basically a remake of Shane in which the kid wants to make sweet sweet love to her grandpa. Apart from being loved or feared by everyone, Clint is also utterly perfect in everything else, so perfect even that it is never in any doubt that he will de-priest (which doesn't seem to be a big thing here anyway), kill the bad guys, survive and ride on while his main groupie cries after him. Which, truth be told, robs the film of any tension - dramatic, moral or otherwise. Turns out that you not only need conflict but also at least a tiny bit of doubt about how the conflict will resolve in a narrative to create any tension. Neither actual conflict nor doubt are anything Eastwood seems to care to deliver in this display of painfully apathetic filmmaking.

The typically sedate pace of Eastwood's direction doesn't help to make the film any more exciting. Usually, Eastwood uses slowness to mirror the inner life of his characters and the rhythm of their existence, to make room to let the audience's understanding of the characters slowly grow. It's a bit like meditation, but with outbursts of violence.

Unfortunately, everyone here is a walking cliché of the least interesting sort, sprouting dialogue as dumb as I've ever heard (a point on which Michael Moriarty seemed to agree; at least his performance suggests it), and so the only thing the film's snail-like tempo shines a light on is that there's nothing of substance going on in it at all, and no life in it to speak of.



Keith said...

I still don't understand how HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER can get it so right and PALE RIDER gets it so wrong. But such is life.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

I blame the addition of sexed-up elements of Shane.