Legend would have it that, after decades of wallowing in admittedly pleasurable crypto-conservative roles, America’s resident taciturn brute Clint Eastwood shocked the world in 1992 with an unprecedented critique of the craven, callous dueling violences at the core of the American tradition. But masterpiece though it may be, Unforgiven was hardly unprecedented to those who were looking. Eastwood’s prior directorial efforts in the genre that made him a household name had flourished nearly two decades beforehand with only his second feature, the unfinished but highly spirited (the spirit being an angel of death in this case) High Plains Drifter, a counter-myth that saw in the Wild West something more akin to an Italian giallo. More fully formed was the sublime The Outlaw Josey Wales, an often misread work of mythic Western nihilism so full-throated in its interrogation of Western archetypes that no one seems to understand it to this day.
With the dawn of the late ‘70s, the bottom fell out of Hollywood’s interest in the genre altogether; Michael Cimino made his bed with the excessively baroque Heaven’s Gate, and the Hollywood New Wave would have to sleep in it. That particular Western’s foibles (wonderful film though it is) salted the earth for the genre for over a decade until the dawn of the ‘90s saw works aplenty freshen the genre’s commercial breath. All the brows were raised: low-brow (the final Back to the Future film), high-brow (Eastwood’s Unforgiven) and middlebrow (the much vaunted, and then much maligned Dances with Wolves). But, in between, Eastwood hadn’t given up on the genre he felt an inextricable twinge of guilt for, his fame of course deriving through strip-mining an oppressive time in American history for entertainment.
The director was finally respected by American audiences with the 1988 release Bird (Americans love their sleepy prestige biopics so much they’ll even bend over for a legitimately good one, all while avoiding the nitty-gritty genre films audiences regard as playing in the dirt). Following, he was afforded the clout to make White Hunter, Black Heart, a Western in everything but location, a quasi-biopic of John Huston, the most cowboy of all directors, and a study in the lands white men went to oppress when the Wild West had been tamed: Africa. But even before reclaiming his name as a chronicler of American myths and anxieties, Hollywood took a shot on Eastwood earlier in the decade with a somewhat forgotten film called Pale Rider, a then-success at the box office and his eventual path to accruing the prestige to direct Bird in the first place.
Cannes, thankfully, was just about the only consistent champion of Eastwood’s abilities during these times, consistently affording him space in their competition slots and generally helping to reintroduce him to the world. Of course, Eastwood himself did his fair share of the work to reintroduce himself with Pale Rider, a frequently stunning film that is far more than its reputation as a dry-run for Unforgiven suggests. Sure, there are similarities; the dominant melancholy and submissively subfuscous mood of the often silent filmmaking in Unforgiven is on display in a more inchoate form here, seven years prior to that superior production. Much like High Plains Drifter – and implicitly Unforgiven – the specters of the past haunt the film, with Eastwood himself possibly the most phantom-like of them all. But this placid, slightly comic Western casts its own high-noon shadow.
When he coasts into a mining camp to rescue the townsfolk from a ruthless, dictatorial landowner near-by, the tale seems as old as dirt, and this is the way Eastwood plays it: with a sparse mystique and a humble cruelty that buckles the glorious myth of the West while also paying homage to another version of it, the ghost story. Eastwood always found great success in the Western Gothic milieu, and his pallid, pointedly closeted portrayal of the pale rider ambiguously plays with the sleight-of-hand and allure of the archetype of the Western hero, stealthily suggesting that the hero was never much more than a campfire tale siphoning imaginary specters out of the sewage of the earth. Eastwood films himself as a deconstructed and reconstructed-slantwise vision of the archetype he has always embodied in his cold, calculating brow and insinuating manner of speaking, shooting the character from behind to decorporealize him and render him into fragments and figments of memory. Rather than a visionary hero, he carries himself with the simple confidence and quiet weight of the walking dead.
There’s also a sly undercurrent of gallows humor aimed primarily at the vaguely symbolic, mystical nature of the character who cheekily seems to threaten the very laws of physics before our eyes. It can be a little on the nose (sample line from Eastwood: “The Lord sure does work in mysterious ways”), but the dry cunning with which he delivers the quips recasts him as a detached, slightly supercilious figure, almost a critique of the disenchantment of the ‘60s and ‘70s Westerns which Eastwood was the face of. Eastwood’s direction, suggesting Eastwood’s acting in minor-key flourishes through visions of his brow or arm, both plays on the audience’s awareness of the Eastwood type and reforms him into something more entombed. Will Mummy, maybe.
Eastwood’s usual partner in crime, Bruce Surtees, is also on hand affecting a muted gallows glow and drowning the film in a swamp-tarnished visual scheme that amusingly reframes private, domestic, internal space (traditionally the embodiment of humankind overcoming nature) into darkened, opaque regions so graveyard-like in their funereal lack of light that we can hardly see in. The whole Western project of overtaking nature turns the characters into shadow people, flaccid silhouettes distorted and stricken of the very human virility and virtue their internal, civilized spaces nominally represent in the first place.
All are ultimately simple techniques content to play around in and lightly tip askew preconceptions of the founding Western myths, rather than per-se overturning them and shooting the canoe full of holes. But that’s the Eastwood way: get in, do the job, get out. The lack of stylistic bravado or self-imposed thematic grandeur don’t enervate the film so much as allow it the liberating freedom to fulfill its own lower-key ambitions boldly and with a plaintive elegance unbeknownst to the more-is-more decade in which the film was made.