Pale Rider Review

Diving into the religious subtext and need for faith, Clint Eastwood marks a swerve from the morally ambiguous anti-hero of High Plains Drifter. A necessary swerve, not just to mark up a real hero, but to accept the time of the western domination was over. Eastwood would do so again in Unforgiven to truly hang up the hat and six-shooters, but Pale Rider serves as an ambiguous, touching look at what faith in other people means to Eastwood. Embodied not just by Eastwood’s inevitably nameless character, but by those who pray for his help and his power as a man of God and of justice. Sergio Leone’s influence strikes a note with Pale Rider and the direction found within, but that is a trivial expectation, and a rewarding one at that.  

Audiences, as well as this director, will find comfort in the notes of Leone that are borrowed so obviously. Nameless characters, settings of bleak and damned proportions, and more than a handful of anti-heroes. But Pale Rider is still keen to move away from the grander, sicker tropes of the spaghetti western genre. It makes time for slower pacing, the cool and hardworking miners working the stream in contrast with the great flurry of sound and speed found in the gang of horses and bandits. Honest work collides with dishonesty and lawlessness. Presented as the great unifier among the divided, Preacher (Eastwood) does a great job of wielding justice not just as a weapon, but as a way for these characters to link themselves to some sense of faith in a greater being. 

Handled rather well these tones may be, the quainter tidings of the Hollywood western make their mark. Pale Rider suffers most in the little moments, vaguely noticeable after spending so many hours with the likes of Franco Nero and Lee Van Cleef. Music, texture and camera movement, it all matters to how these men and women are portrayed. Clunky dialogue does not help, but it is the passion displayed by the director and his leading role that keeps it from falling apart. Pale Rider is good, but it is never great. For all his musings on the divine and what it may entail for the wicked souls of the west, none of it is shown in a particularly unique manner. Compared to the bookends that are High Plains Drifter and Unforgiven, something is lacking within Pale Rider.  

Unable to straddle his love for Leone and his desire to work his way further into the belly of the Hollywood beast, Pale Rider may start with honest and incredible intentions, but it loses its way rather rapidly. It still has all the qualities of an Eastwood feature and has enough great and panicked shootouts to entertain, but its subtext is clumsy and the dialogue used to display it is somehow even clumsier. Ravaged towns and the screams of the wounded may paint an awfully horrifying picture, but Eastwood uses this to poke at the beast of his own faith. He does so better in other portions of his work, but audiences will be hard-pressed to forget his earnest intentions as the Preacher.  

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