The pleasures of a Clint Eastwood movie are none the worse for their familiarity, and "Pale Rider" has them -- the flicker around the eye, the jaw clenched like pliers, the raspy delivery of the lines. That voice! A whisper, jab setting up the right cross -- the kaboom of a Colt .45. Pavarotti of the laconic putdown. But this new western is less than a success for Eastwood, who directs as well as stars. It's Eastwood riding on earnestness, and running on empty.
Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart), local panjandrum of precious ores, wants to run the "tinpans," or independent miners, out of Carbon Canyon; his goons trash the camp, but the tinpans won't give. They're a hardscrabble lot, and when the hardscrabbliest of them all, Hull Barret (Michael Moriarty, doing a remarkable impersonation of Jed Clampett) finds himself at the wrong end of three ax handles, he's saved by the Preacher (Eastwood), who wields his own ax handle like a conductor's baton.
The Preacher organizes the tinpans and exhorts them to stick together against the despoiling corporation, which is (it turns out) strip miners ruining the landscape. "Pale Rider," in other words, is a sort of training film for liberation theologists, tough-guy leftism, but Eastwood's heart isn't in it. The movie purveys some muzzy religious message (Eastwood rides into town in answer to a little girl's prayers), but the content is beside the point.
The movie is simply an exploration of the western as a form, or more precisely, a refurbishment of it. Those who can't figure how all this turns out should rent a videocassette of "Shane," from which "Pale Rider" steals whole scenes, as well as Eastwood's own "High Plains Drifter." Screenwriters Dennis Shryack and Michael Butler have a good feel for western jargon ("You got sand" for "You've got guts"), but they're just painting by the numbers. As they say in the institutional food biz, serve yesterday's eggplant parmigiana and call it moussaka. The sexual undercurrents of "Shane" are brought in the open in "Pale Rider" -- the first movie's erotic subtext becomes a creepy repressed lust for underage girls in the second. This recent Eastwood motif is virtually the only evidence of his sensibility, which we see only in dim glimpses here.
Then again, we only see dim glimpses of the characters here. Bruce Surtees' cinematography is so dark, the faces reduced to crescent moons, that you think you're watching an Ingmar Bergman movie ("The Outlaw Hja lmar Wales"?) Even outside, you can hardly make things out, and the duns and forest greens of the landscapes have a boraxed dullness. Except for the pixieish way Eastwood shoots the ax handle ruckus, the action sequences just lie there; Eastwood hasn't shot enough different set-ups from enough different angles to have anything to work with in the editing room.
Eastwood hates retakes and additional set-ups for a simple reason -- he's notoriously tight with a roll, and all this costs money. That's the same reason he won't work with a talented director -- as far as he's concerned, he can't afford it. Yet, as long as he's on a budget, he should realize that he's reached the point in his career where a talented director is a necessity.
Eastwood has long been in a tussle with his own iconography, which in recent years he has slyly subverted. But he's stuck in a box -- he can either play what people expect of him, or he can play against that. In "Pale Rider," he tries to do both. At times, he's Bronco Billy, elaborately polite ("Fine lookin' fricassee there, ma'am") and kindly to children (when a young girl offers him her maidenhead, he replies, more or less, "Eat your vegetables"). At other times he's the Man with No Name, simply The Preacher, with neither past nor destination, doing his talking with a grimace and the Great Equalizer. The result isn't a synthesis but simply a clash of tones, a movie that never knows which end is up.
Eastwood's instincts are right -- he wanted to make a classic western, not a parody. But in doing so, he's listlessly collected all the cliche's of the genre (he even shoots the gun out of someone's hand) and has pretended that the passing years in which they became cliche's never happened. He's searching for a way out of his box, but he won't find it alone. Clint Eastwood, meet Francis Ford Coppola. And sign the check.