In the western genre, there exists that character with no name, the mysterious past, and unclear motivations. To take that familiar piece of long-standard Hollywood story telling and flip it completely upside down is gutsy, but Pale Rider pulls it off.
Many people might not see it, picturing Clint Eastwood as the ultimate guy, wandering around the West blasting bad guys and saving the poor. What is in Pale Rider is subtle, notably because The Preacher (Eastwood) is not explained. There are references to his past, one of the key villains believing Preacher is dead. The character does not enter the frame until Megan (Sydney Penny) prays for help.
Nothing is laid out in plain view for the audience. What seems like a traditional western of a small colony being raided by the greedy rich is actually more complex than that. It is up the audience to decide who the Preacher is and why he can do what he does with no remorse or even a flinch.
Beyond its open writing lies a western that is beautifully photographed, immediately apparent during the opening credits. Shots of hired guns riding their horses across the open plain are wonderful, the mountainous backdrops proving sights that immediately draw the viewer in.
Eastwood loves building tension. Those credits are only the first example of how long this film will go to instill a sense of fear and dread. Those men on horseback are spliced in with a small mining village continuing their daily duties. The contrast in speed and aggressiveness is displayed forcefully.
Other intense scenes do not need contrast, just framing. Hull Barret’s (Michael Moriarty) first visit into town has goons spread around the businesses, slowly moving closer as Hull tries to purchase some goods. Later scenes use something as simple as a hat to frame an entire sequence to maximize the building tension.
Pale Rider’s writing does contain character arcs that fall victim to western clichés. Anyone who thinks the nice, somewhat funny secondary man who strikes it rich will live has little experience with the genre. Some careless continuity also hinders the film, as Hull’s arm suddenly has a visible cast that disappears shot to shot after he is beaten up in town. How he was able to put a cast on his arm from underneath his carriage is also a mystery.
Despite the grisly violence, which Pale Rider showcases during its vicious final act, this is a unique, gorgeous film. It uses the California and Idaho location filming for all that it is worth, creating not just a believable backdrop, but a place where Preacher can establish exactly what he is.
Warner’s VC-1 encode, at least in the daylight, is a stunner. The vast mountain ranges are nothing short of breathtaking, and the open plains showcased over the opening credits are completely resolved. One of the first shots of the Preacher is reference in terms of depth, dimension and detail. It occurs around 10:15, where even into the distance, the rocks of the mountain are clearly defined and delineated. Thankfully, there is no artificial enhancement applied, letting these environments shine naturally.
Colors are natural, without excessive saturation. Flesh tones are accurate, and the lush greens of the trees are quite vibrant. The print is in superb shape, with few imperfections, and even those are limited to mild specks. Some fading can be seen on the sides of the frame in certain scenes. Facial detail is not delivered as well as that on clothing. Wool hats, shirts, and pants all exhibit clean texture. A fine layer of grain sits over the proceedings, a truly wonderful film stock that the encode handles cleanly.
All of that disappears in the dark. Eastwood chose to film interiors with limited light, and the black levels, despite the striking level of depth in outdoor environments, do not exhibit the same inky quality indoors (or at night). A murky quality persists, and the difference in depth and detail is immediately apparent. Some crush can blend backgrounds with the actors, intentional with the filmmakers providing such limited light. There are a lot of these scenes, but the sheer majestic quality of outdoor environments is too hard to criticize.
A TrueHD mix is a surprise. The opening assault is easily the most aggressive portion of the film, gunfire, screams, horses pounding the ground, dogs barking, and shattering wood creating an enveloping soundfield. Even prior, ambiance is exceptional, inserting bird chirps and other wildlife calls into the surrounds. The horses moving through the frame are captured in the stereo channels accurately, if a bit distorted, splitting the fronts with additional directionality.
Fidelity is strong, capturing the dialogue cleanly. Explosions as dynamite explodes before the ending come through slightly hot, certainly lacking the crispness of earlier. Bass is also non-existent, leaving the “booms” lacking punch. Gunfire, while slightly hollow, remains firm enough to not be a distraction.
Extras are limited to two trailers, one for Pale Rider, the other for Unforgiven.