The film opens with a stranger coming into a small town. Throughout the opening scenes, he is viewed as a dangerous “other”, a potential threat, as the people are unaware of his intentions. However, as it turns out, the people are not scared of him; they are more scared of the outlaws operating in the town. The stranger kills three of them, thus becoming the town’s savior and immediately changing people’s impression of him.
Although he does not act as a benevolent character – for instance, immediately after killing the gang members he drags a woman into a barn to rape her – the people continue to look up to him throughout the first part of the film. As more gang members are about to be let out of prison, the town needs a protector, and the stranger has skills that would make him an excellent choice for one. In exchange for his help, the sheriff offers him a “free hand” in the town and can get anything he wants (High Plains Drifter).
The stranger quickly takes control of the town, acting in ways that people find disrespectful and unwise. However, the town tolerates him due to his promise of handling the outlaws who are about to return. The tension rises as the men of the town plot to kill the stranger to take the control back; however, he survives, killing them and the three outlaws towards the end of the film. In the final scene, it turns out that the stranger is the ghost of the town marshal Jim Duncan, who was killed by the three outlaws while the people of the town watched. After getting his revenge, his soul can now “rest in peace,” as his tombstone says (High Plains Drifter).
There are three key topics explored in the film. First, the film is centered on violence and revenge. In essence, the murder of the marshal has laid the foundation for the story, bringing the stranger to the town. As the story began with violence, the only way to end it is with a fight, which is why the stranger comes to the town seeking revenge. Another major topic is the struggle for power. In their search for a savior, the people of the town were desperate to obtain help, which is why they lure the stranger into accepting their offer by offering him all he wants and fulfilling all of his requests.
However, as the stranger establishes himself as the most powerful figure in town, they begin struggling for power, plotting to kill him to return their positions in the hierarchy. Finally, one of the central topics of the film is spirituality. Throughout the film, characters see flashbacks of the marshal’s murder that was committed by the three outlaws who are about to return. The first person to see the flashback is the main character, which suggests that he is connected to the marshal.
As he leaves the town after killing the three outlaws, he passes by Mordecai setting up a tombstone on the marshal’s grave. In return for Mordecai’s statement “I never did know your name,” the stranger replies “yes, you do” and leaves as the camera zooms in on the name of the marshal, carved into the tombstone (High Plains Drifter). Although it is not explicitly stated in the film, it is clear that the stranger was the marshal’s ghost seeking retribution that would enable him to rest in peace.