Pale Rider is an interesting Eastwood–while it is a milestone in Eastwood coming together as a filmmaker–it’s also one of the few films where he really offered up so much for another actor to do. The film’s some kind of homage to Shane–as well as a colder, more mountainous version of High Plains Drifter–but Michael Moriarty has a lot more to do in Pale Rider than Van Heflin had to do in Shane even. With a handful of mediocre ones, Pale Rider has some of the best performances in any Eastwood film to this point. Besides Moriarty, who really has to carry the film, since Eastwood’s absent as a character, there’s Chris Penn, who’s fantastic as the bad guy. Doug McGrath is good, so is Richard Kiel (though he doesn’t have much to do). Richard Dysart shows up as the big bad and he’s hamming it up but it’s in a funny way. The script’s absolute shit (more on it in a second), but Dysart has a great time with it. Carrie Snodgress doesn’t do well with the script, which saddles her with an unsympathetic and petty character. Worst (though still passable) is Sydney Penny, who plays the teenage girl in love with Eastwood. She can’t deliver the bad lines properly and there’s no way she’s Snodgress’s daughter, so she sticks out.
The script–from the half-wits who wrote The Car of all things–probably doesn’t have a single good moment. Watching the film, appreciating the stuff between Eastwood and Moriarty, I figured Eastwood came up with that relationship on set. While Pale Rider is a definite influence on Unforgiven–much of it makes Unforgiven, Eastwood’s next Western, seem like a response to Pale Rider. Rider is the same old formula Western (full of references to earlier Eastwood Westerns), only with it, Eastwood really gets the filmmaking end of it together. He’s got Lennie Niehaus on music and there’s some good stuff, but it’s mostly not. Joel Cox edits the film and does a wonderful job. Bruce Surtees shot it in his standard flat palate, but the technical end really comes through. Some of the work in Pale Rider is from a different Clint Eastwood. Not better, not worse, but different. He was going to either go, stylistically, one way or the other and in Pale Rider, you can see both of them side-by-side.
Unfortunately, the script’s so bad, it’s impossible to recommend as anything but an example of a competent, interesting production. By the time the end shoot-out comes around, it’s all so telegraphed (and short) and entirely familiar, there’s really nothing to it. There’s no excitement and it becomes obvious what a chore Pale Rider was for Eastwood to make–and how lazy he was in regards to many, many aspects of it, particularly the undeveloped town. Eastwood was making a ton of movies during this period and Pale Rider suffers from a stretched attention-span.