Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews as I go through the process of finishing post and releasing my 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.
Week 122: Red Headed Stranger
WARNING: Do not read the plot description of this movie. It ruins the plot.
My look at 80s Westerns continues with a film that wasn’t on my radar at all until the last month. I’ve always strayed away from Willie Nelson Westerns, finding the whole idea kind of silly. Well, Barbarosa proved that prejudice to be misguided and therefore, I was more open to watch Red Headed Stranger.
I had no idea going in that this was written and directed by Bill Wittliff, who wrote Lonesome Dove, Legends of the Fall, and the former Nelson film I mentioned. His contribution to the Western genre is highly undervalued; I wish I could have met and thanked him before his recent passing.
Back to the film, it’s a surprisingly lean, mean affair. It has hints of Pale Rider but it’s better (more on that in a moment). I love Nelson’s performance. He plays it very simple yet with great intensity in his eyes. R.G. Armstrong, who I have seen in countless Westerns is at his best here and this might be the meatiest role he was ever given. Royal Dano is also great as the villain, a somewhat unusual choice because he communicates power and a pathetic quality at the same time. Of course, Katherine Ross just has an amazing presence. I could watch her in movies for days.
The filmmakers handle the violence, sometimes shocking, in a non-stylized yet effective way. Take for instance, a wide (and I mean very wide) shot that plays out for an entire dramatic moment between Armstrong and Dano. I kept waiting for the cut and they smartly held it until after the shooting was done.
As mentioned before, I find this film to be far superior to Pale Rider and Eastwood’s other Western work prior to Unforgiven. Like those, Nelson’s character is somewhat of an avenging angel but he’s a more grounded one. The film is original and believable, nearly at all times. This is now one of my favorite Westerns of the 80s.
Watched on Tubi.