Rating: 6 / 10
It’s almost impossible to not get your mad love on for a Clint Eastwood western in which he plays a squinty, gravely-voiced, nigh-invincible gunslinger, especially when paired against a steel-eyed, cold-blooded villainous Marshal in the dusty streets of 19th-Century California mining town. Throw in some supernatural overtones and Biblical parallels that add a layer of ambiguity to the narrative, and interest levels are definitely poked and prodded. But all the macho posturing, sweeping vistas, superheroic shootouts, and Clint Eastwood bad-assery cannot keep Pale Rider from rising above the level of only average entertainment.
Eastwood starred in and directed this 1985 summer release, which comes complete with all the trappings of a Western, but nothing to elevate it above the level of pleasing, unmemorable storytelling. It’s a simple tale which lacks the emotional depth and richness exemplified by superior genre films. The plot in and of itself is about as basic as one might expect from a dimestore novel: a small, struggling group of good-hearted miners and panners, led by Hull Barret (Michael Moriarty), are prospecting for gold. As luck would have it, their mining activities stand in the way of the wealthy, cold-hearted Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart), who sends in his team of rough-riding no-goodniks to raid the miners camp, destroy their tents and equipment, rough up the men, terrify the women, and in a moment of exquisite Tarkovsky-inspired subtlety, shoot a tiny beloved dog before the horrified eyes of its 14-year-old owner, Megan Wheeler (Sydney Penny). After the attack, she buries her dog, prays fervently for a miracle, and soon afterward a tall, dark stranger appears on a pale horse (Eastwood). Saving the proud, courageous Hull from a beating in town at the hands of LaHood’s men, this stranger — revealed to be a Preacher — returns to the miners’ camp as a mysterious protector and motivational speaker, leading off to the inevitable face-off with LaHood, his men, and especially evil Marshal Stockburn (John Russell), who has a history with the Preacher — Stockburn killed him years earlier! Or did he?
If you think that brief plot synopsis sounds like your average episode of a 1960s television western, you’d be one snarky, cynical bastard… but you’d be more or less spot-on. Yet even the most threadbare of stories can make for great movies, if told with style, energy, insight, a willingness to delve deeper into the subject matter beyond the surface-level conceits. But Eastwood takes a simple story and tells it simply, albeit with enthusiasm and a sense of giving the audience what it wants. When you see Eastwood on a white horse, complete with duster, Remington slung over his shoulder, staring down a villain, or when he’s slowly making his way down a dusty street in the middle of town, advancing slowly on the bad guy, striding tall with dark, piercing eyes, wind blowing precariously, it’s hard not to get caught up in the moment. Eastwood doesn’t need me to wax poetic on his screen presence. Shot in the mountains of California and Idaho, Pale Rider is certainly a beautiful looking movie, getting every inch of value out of its $7 million budget. The action sequences are exciting and often wildly improbable, but this isn’t a movie terribly concerned with realism; it takes a certain supernatural turn as to whether or not The Preacher is a supernatural being (Eastwood himselfs claims he definitley played him as a ghost. Your mileage may vary…).
Yes, everything looks great, and it has all the perfect Western ingredients, but it all feels a bit hollow on the inside. Lennie Niehaus’s score is evocative and sweeping, but the dramatic cues often become blaringly intrusive. The aforementioned plot is boilerplate material. The characters themselves are somewhat cardboard. Moriarty takes on the Henry Fonda part with inner strength and quiet dignity, but Sydne Penney, as Megan, while looking pretty enough with plenty of frontier-styled spunk, plays her role to the back of a theater two time-zones away. Chris Penn delivers the goods with charm and menace as LaHood’s son, and look out for Richard Kiel in a gobsmackingly shocking role as a hulking brute with a secret heart of gold. As the two main bad guys, Dysart and Russell excel in their sometimes underwritten roles. No, there’s nothing wrong with the performances (mostly); everybody seems to be giving it their all. But in the end these are stock characters; cardboard cutouts given just enough dramatic intertia to keep the plot moving forward.
Eastwood’s Preacher is a great screen creation but really not much of a character. All you know of his past is a connection with Stockburn; otherwise, like the alleged ghost he is, he shows up when needed, oozes machismo and presence every second he’s on screen, kicks a whole lot of ass without any real struggle, and disappears just as quickly. There’s not really a lot to latch onto there, except of course for Eastwood’s charisma — which let’s face it, goes a REAL long way. Watching him stealth-kill a bunch of nameless, faceless evil hoodlums is a visceral thrill no matter how you slice it, even if it amounts to video-game antics.
The end result is this: you end up wanting to really like Pale Rider a lot more than you do. Is it an entertaining movie in a kill-time-with-a-Western sort of way? Without question. Is it a good movie? It’s decent enough, basically promising what it delivers: 90 minutes of simple, on-the-vest storytelling, leaving little depth or complexity in its wake. Like its titular character, Pale Rider — as a basic Western, nothing more or less — magically appears, does its job, and leaves as if it were never there. Cinematic Chinese take-out.