In the first 16 minutes of High Plains Drifter, Clint Eastwood's character visits a town called Lago, where he kills three men and rapes a woman. By the 20-minute mark, if we're still watching, we get an idea of why.
Through a flashback/dream sequence as Eastwood's character sleeps, we see several outlaws brandishing horsewhips, beating an unarmed man to death in the street.
As the townspeople look on, the man begs for someone to help him, but all the townspeople — their faces wrapped in shadow — just stand there and let him die. Among the townsfolk, we see familiar silhouettes of characters the stranger has met so far, including the woman he's already raped.
Finally, we see Duncan's face — a slightly younger, clean-shaven Clint Eastwood. Somehow, this unnamed stranger in town and Jim Duncan are connected.
But Jim Duncan is dead.
When the stranger wakes from his dream, he goes out again. The town sheriff approaches him with an offer. Seeing as the stranger shot and killed the town's hired guns, the sheriff wants to hire the stranger to help with a little problem. The town needs protection from three gunfighters who are getting out of prison and heading straight for Lago. They're the same three gunfighters that killed Jim Duncan.
The sheriff insists that the stranger pay nothing for any goods or services in Lago. The stranger accepts the offer, and immediately goes on a town-wide shopping spree. He gets free boots, free drinks (he "buys" a round for the house before the barkeep knows the stranger isn't paying), and recruits a town militia, which he offers to train. He tears down a rich man's barn for the building materials. He evicts everyone in the town hotel so he can have the whole place to himself. He even names the town dwarf as acting mayor and sheriff — at the same time.
In short, the stranger pretty much does what anyone would do if you got an all-expenses paid shopping spree in a town full of assholes. He paints the town red — no, literally, with the townspeople's help — and re-names the town "Hell." Here's another good examination of the film.
Hello, revenge fantasy! Pretty much every character who was either complicit or directly involved in the killing of Jim Duncan gets his/her just desserts.
Wait...so rape is justified? That's not what I'm saying. But maybe the film is saying that.
One could argue at great length about the rape scene. While neither sexually explicit nor as intense as the rape scene in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (which came out two years previously), there is a disturbing connection between the two films that gets at the worst of misogyny. Of course, neither Straw Dogs nor High Plains Drifter pre-date another classic film that depicts rape as something a woman eventually enjoys. Dr. Zhivago (1965) did the same thing.
What's more, during the rape scenes in all three films, the female fights at first, then submits, then appears to enjoy herself. In High Plains Drifter, when the rapist goes back to her for more, she welcomes him — and sleeps with him again!
But in High Plains Drifter, this is a protagonist committing the rape. Only despicable characters do that, right? Protagonists maintain that moral high ground, so they're always better than the villains. High Plains Drifter takes on that old saw.
High Plains Drifter appears to take a rather blithe view of violence against women, with only the flimsy justification that this woman somehow "deserves" this sort of thing because of her complicity in the murder of Jim Duncan. Here's an interesting thread on the topic.
The film's thesis appears to be that any punishment up to and including rape or death, regardless of the damage emotionally, financially, or otherwise — is justifiable when the original crime is murder. Say what you will about that. I'm not certain I agree with that thesis, but I'm trying to understand how the filmmakers got there.
Eastwood's stranger is an avenging angel with no morals who has returned to Lago to enact justice. In High Plains Drifter, in order to deal with the amoral, one must abandon all morality. In order to enact revenge, morality disappears almost altogether here. Some characters in the town get a free pass — the meek, for example. The stranger treats all of the town's minorities — Mexicans, Native Americans, and even the town dwarf — very well. The stranger is not entirely without morals. He doesn't rape every woman in sight — he rapes the one woman who watched Jim Duncan's death and did nothing. Agree with his method or not, he does have a motive to commit the crime.
But does the stranger really get revenge? That's the part I find most interesting. In "The Cask of Amontillado," Edgar Allan Poe's short story, Poe clearly lays out what the narrator believes to be the tenets of revenge:
"I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong."
Using that as a guide, does the stranger get revenge?
1) Yes, he gets away with punishing the town and townsfolk, leaving destruction in his wake.
2) No, the retribution does not overtake him. He leaves town unscathed and disappears into the ether.
3) He does not fail to make the town aware of his identity and motivations...sort of. Several characters allude to Marshal Jim Duncan and appear to recognize him, but the stranger doesn't confess, and no one outright identifies him.
But when he kills the outlaws in the film's climactic sequence, one of the gunmen repeatedly screams, "WHO ARE YOU?" but the stranger remains silent. Only when he leaves town and passes Mordecai, the town dwarf, who is carving the name "Jim Duncan" into a headstone, does the stranger even remotely identify himself. Mordecai says that he still doesn't know the stranger's name. The stranger simply responds, "Yes you do," before riding off. That's all.
Is that true to how Poe defined revenge? Did the outlaws who murdered Jim Duncan in the street realize who had come to kill them? Even if the complicit townsfolk eventually realized who the stranger was, at best, they simply learned a valuable and violent lesson. The killers themselves were the ultimate target of the stranger's revenge.
Did the killers know? The stranger hangs one, whips another to death (okay, maybe that one understood what was happening), and the third is shot to death in the street. Do they know what hit them, as they die? That's unclear. Poe might argue that the revenge is incomplete.
However, the stranger rode off into the ether anyway, satisfied with his work.