Pale Rider (1985) – ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Directed by: Clint Eastwood 

Spoilers

Pale Rider, the first of Eastwood’s only two notable post-70s westerns, sets itself up to be a more comedic take on the same principles as the second of Eastward’s only two notable post-70s westerns, Unforgiven. In fact the comedic elements are played so straight that it’s hard to be sure they’re even intentional, although I’m fairly sure they are and I believe it to be a much better film if they are. Unfortunately though, Pale Rider, Eastwood’s 11th film as director, settles down into something more ordinary after the opening act.

The narrative fits the bill of an archetypal western; lawful community has problems with lawless rogues, mysterious man decides to help them, the lawful community are unsure about the man but eventually accept him, the mysterious man gives the community the strength and help they need to defeat the lawless rogues, they defeat the lawless rogues, and the mysterious man rides off into the sunset. The film’s strengths lie in its comical execution of the western’s long list of tropes. For example, when Eastwood first shows up in town to help a gold-miner in need, rather than the more conventional shoot-out, he opts for a wooden-sword fight as his method of disarmament. Or when one of members of the settlement are unsure of the morality of Eastwood, he steps out of the shadows and reveals himself to be the epitome of virtuousness, a preacher. This happens after the young girl, Megan (Sydney Penny), asks God to send her a miracle, intercut with Eastwood’s Preacher in silhouette.

It’s a cartoon parody of a western and, during the opening act, I enjoyed it. It’s a shame then that it didn’t continue in this fashion, instead becoming a more conventional spaghetti western. The plot took hold and instead of Richard Kiel smashing boulders with one swing of a hammer, we get a slightly awkward coming-of-age B-plot, eventually ending in a Leone-esque one-on-seven shoot-out that has been done better in other films. Even the best part of the shoot-out was the absurdity of Eastwood popping out of trough to take out a villain.

Perhaps I’m underselling the non-comedic aspects of the film which would ordinarily provide for an entertaining romp, but it could have been more. If only it could embraced it parodical edge, it would have made a great companion piece to Unforgiven in a double bill of post-modern westerns, only its effectiveness would be achieved through absurdist comedy rather than Unforgiven’s self-important self-reflection.

Rating – 58/100

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