"Outside the window, on the ground, our hound dog was growling, pale riders flew across my lawn; I looked again, and they all were gone!" Yeah, I bet you thought that I was going to go with, like, "Ghost Riders" or something, but I figured I'd keep things relevant with a 2011 song... by Neil Young. Hey, it's not like I was going to make a reference to a music artist these days who hasn't gotten so old that he or she is, in fact, starting to turn pale. If turning pale is a reflection of age, then I think this film ought to tell you just how dirt-old Clint Eastwood is, because almost three decades ago, you could already refer to paleness as a major characterizing trait for one of his western characters. I'd say that Eastwood was still hardcore at, like, 112, but in case you ever get this film confused for "High Plains Drifter", just think about how, as the high plains drifter, Eastwood was literally supernatural in his awesomeness which no one dared to rival, and how, as the pale rider, he's some old coot who doesn't want to fight... but sure kicks some butt when he does. Okay, let's just agree to never mess with Clint Eastwood, just to be safe, because he can make a mean cowboy, as well as a mean cowboy redemption film... like "Unforgiven". Yeah, this isn't quite "Unforgiven", but it is decent, despite its shortcomings.
The film isn't especially overlong, but it is, in fact, overlong, drawn out by some excess in filler, as well as by a little filler which thins focus, and is made all the more aimless in feel by limp spells to dryly quiet direction that is bland enough when the material for it to draw upon with thoughtfulness is familiar. There are refreshing occasions, but this story is generally formulaic, with tropes ranging from simply familiar to near-trite, particularly when the tropes prove to be shamelessly melodramatic, on top of shamelessly formulaic. One of the bigger issues with this drama is histrionics, as there are some melodramatic conflicts, as well as contrived character types, who plague the narrative with subtlety issues that don't exactly peak with characterization, also coming in the form of cheesy comic relief, as well as some overblown plays on melodramatics. On top of all of the scripted histrionics and subtlety issues is something of an overblown directorial atmosphere that leads to sentimentality, reflecting too much in the way of ambition regardless of natural shortcomings. Mind you, natural shortcomings are limited in this generally intriguing story, but there's a whole lot of talking, with a minimalism that makes this story feel more-or-less like filler for a filmmaker as ambitious as Clint Eastwood. As irony would have it, Eastwood's ambition reflects the natural shortcomings, and not just with the sentimentality, because when Eastwood makes a misstep, his and, for that matter, writers Michael Butler's and Dennis Shryack's flaws are emphasized enough by the heart to drive the final product short of what it could have been, let alone what it wants to be. With all of that said, the heart also does a lot to make the film compelling, through all of its missteps, partly with the help of, of all things, some production value.
The art direction here is subtle to the point of not being all that outstanding, but it is somewhat unconventional in its minimalism, whose realism also holds a certain immersion value that is complimented, at least tonally, by a score by Lennie Niehaus that is formulaic and often overblown, but more prominent than the score of previous Clint Eastwood westerns, livening things up and helping in selling the tone of the story. This story is minimal in scale, but I must admit that there is meat to this film's dramatic value as a portrait on a stranger, for the better, changing a town he might have to end up defending by betraying moral promises to himself, and when Michael Butler's and Dennis Shryack's writing does this meat justice, despite being overwrought and overdrawn, dialogue proves to be clever, and characterization proves to be memorable. Sure, the script betrays reward value, with its messy elements, but it also helps in bringing the final product to the brink of rewarding with all of its wit, assisted by some tasteful direction. Eastwood's efforts are palpably overambitious, with a sense of sentimentality which is punctuated by limp spells to more subtle storytelling touched, but the direction is generally effective in holding your attention with a subtle entertainment value, broken up by thoughtful spells which thrive on genuine highlights in dramatic material. There are some powerful moments amidst a certain consistent intrigue that leaves the final product to flirt with a rewarding state as a character drama which is anchored by genuine character portrayals. There is the occasional flat performance, or at least that's the case with the young future soap opera star Sydney Penny, but there are also plenty of charming supporting performances, none of which are memorable compared to Eastwood, who, as lead actor, really delivers, with thorough charm as a man of peace, whose returning to violence to protect the innocent is an emotional journey which Eastwood sells with engrossingly subtle and graceful layers and nuances. Eastwood, onscreen, is the real treat here, but his offscreen endeavors aren't too much less commendable, carrying enough inspiration to go with heart in order to craft a decent drama, even though more could have been done.
In conclusion, the film outstays its welcome a bit, at least enough to pick up some conventions and histrionics along the way of its ambitious interpretation of a dramatically minimalist story concept, which is still done enough justice by decent production value and scoring, fair writing, thoughtful direction and strong acting - at least from Clint Eastwood - to make "Pale Rider" a reasonably entertaining and near-rewardingly compelling, if undercooked western drama.
2.75/5 - Decent