A surprisingly different and interesting Eastwood Western. I feel incredibly stupid for not realizing the symbolism about 20 minutes earlier than I did, but I enjoyed it a lot afterwards.
So, you've got a movie about a mysterious man who wanders into a little country town, and "saves" them from a trio of miscreants seeking revenge for something not immediately clear to the audience. I really enjoyed the way this movie flips your expectations. You go in expecting a less-good Fistful of Dollars, and get something totally unique and stylish in its own way, even if said style occasionally comes off as cheesy. It's a hard movie to talk about without spoilers, so most of this will be under the spoiler tag ahead:
The idea of the Devil wreaking havoc on a corrupt, slimy town that at first appears to be charming and down-to-earth is an interesting one. Eastwood's performance is exactly what it needs to be, so I don't feel as though it's a flaw, even though he's basically just doing The Man With No Name (fun fact: this character actually is a man with no name, vs. his Dollars Trilogy character(s), all with names). I do think the characters initially presented to us as the villains could be more memorable, but the despicable townsfolk make up for it. The preacher, in particular, I found quite funny and thematically interesting. The addition of a crooked preacher may not seem like much, but I think he's the crux of the whole movie; he's the epitome of deceptively devious.
What strikes me as odd is the complaints here about the protagonist's treatment of women. Sure, it's not inherently moral at all, but neither is our protagonist. It's not glorifying his actions. They're just presented as-is. It's not about whether what he does is just, because on normal terms it isn't. But you have to consider the main character's intent, and the events depicted in the movie.
The townspeople, almost all of them, are complicit in cold-blooded murder. Almost every one of them is a really terrible person, so when the women are raped, it's not an act to be glorified; it's penance. It's the devil smiting them, not our "hero" having a good, ol' time (not that I think rape is a good, ol' time).
Anyway, there's my two cents on that topic. Putting aside any accusations of sexism (which you could make some case for in the actual portrayal of the female characters, specifically Sarah rather than Callie), it's certainly not like any other Western out there. I'd recommend it to the surrealist crowd, in particular. It's not a bonafide classic, but given the option, I'd sure as hell speak in its favour.
Second viewing, June 21, 2019:
Works better once you know what you're getting yourself into. The genre deconstructionalism comes across more strongly, and it's the same brand we see in Unforgiven (nobody's a hero in the wild west). The score is really immaculate, with its wail of a leitmotif. Most of the townspeople are admittedly not all that interesting (who'd let a barber with that hairdo touch them?), but the dynamic of the film doesn't rely on the people of Lago being three-dimensional.
Something I found very intriguing this time around is just exactly who Clint Eastwood's stranger is.
Is he a reincarnation of Lago's betrayed marshal? Some kind of spirit of vengeance? Could it be... Satan? Or somewhere in between? There's no cut-and-dry explanation. The little hints laced throughout the film are ambiguous and conflict with one another. Even his intent is unclear; what exactly is he trying to to for, and to, Lago? This mystique only serves to enhance the film, and when you come down to it there needn't be a clear explanation. You can read into it whatever way suits you (or, if you're like me, ambiguity is the most satisfying interpretation).
The treatment of women is still arguably sexist but, again, you really have to follow your heart on the subject, because what it says about the women and what happens to them is not explicit. For me, it's really just a big, evil gumbo pot. It's a hive of scum and villainy rained upon by a dark, malicious cloud. Nobody's the better because it's all just muck.
Anyway, that's me. As of this moment I'd recommend the film to any fellow movie fans with open minds. If you're a western fan who'd take an episode of The Rifleman over The Searchers, maybe it's not for you, but if you love Westerns of all shapes and sizes (like me) I say give 'er a go!