Director: Sam Peckinpah
Writer: Sam Peckinpah and Gordon Dawson
Cinematographer: Alex Phillips, Jr.
by Jon Cvack
I’d consider this a slow moving Tarantino film. At nearly two hours, I figure if someone dared challenge Mr. Peckinpah it could have been a phenomenal movie. Instead, we are left with a lot of meandering, watching a couple talk about things that aren’t all that interesting, which eventually results in a the main character going around with the actual head of Alfredo Garcia, talking to him per the likes of Wilson from Cast Away, and participating in some of type of revenge caper film per the likes of Kill Bill or Django Unchained.
The film opens up in a Mexican Mansion. We see hombres and cowboys, packing their rifles and six shooters and we have no idea when the film takes place. There’s a young, pregnant teenage girl standing before mob boss El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez). Demanding she tell him who the father is, they strip her down naked, and she finally spills it - Alfredo Garcia. The father demands his head. And in a maelstrom, the men leave the small town, driving and flying all over the country, as we now discover that it’s all taking place in modern times.
Two bodyguards head to rural Mexico where we meet pianist and alcoholic, Bennie (Warren Oates). I first thought Bennie was Alfredo Garcia given the similarity to the picture, though after about twenty minutes I understood he wasn’t and rather a retired Army Officer with thick teeth and insatiable thirst for the bottle.
He’s been courting prostitute Elita (Isela Vega) who passes her crabs onto Bennie, who picks them off and cracks them apart in one of the great uses of subtle sound effects. The two embark on a journey across rural Mexico. We head from urban area to urban area, each more begrimed and disgusting than the last. We understand that the couple is being followed and will likely get killed. What we don’t expect is the random pair of bikers who stop the couple after a prolonged, mawkish dialogue that Ebert loved and I lost patience with. The biker pair is led by Kris Kristofferson, who in foil to his wholesome role in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (same year 1974), plays a rapist who requests the act with his typical calmness, which results in frightening command. I enjoyed Elita’s confusing choice to either play along, or feign interest. We know that Bennie will approach the pair - and in a brilliant switch, we no longer doubt that he’ll kill the biker, so much as if he'll kill Elita as well.
And thus, approximately halfway through the film, the story finally takes off (and we get our first Peckinpah Slow Motion Action Sequence), and we begin to witness the disintegration of Bennie. Ebert highlighted that this film in large part reflects that a "...real director’s at his best when he works with material that reflects his own life pattern.” At this point in his life, Peckinpah was completely drunk each and every day. It’s easy to see the film as his own rebellious act after believing the studio deliberately screwed him on his previous project The Ballad of Cable Hogue. What begins as a simple story, descends into madness as Elita gets murdered, and Bennie stops at nothing in order to bring in the head and avenge her death. The script almost feels improvised, as though Bennie and Elita were going to bring in the head, drive off into the sunset, and instead Peckinpah went on a binger one night, saw his life pass by in front of him, and said fuck it, pulling the crew further into rural Mexico.
Bennie's complete and utter rage from Elita’s death onward, while seeming initially shallow, became more apparent after reading about Peckinpah’s history. In fact, shortly after watching this, I ran into a woman I met while taking the ferry to Catalina Island, who was visiting from Florida and worked out in LA for three or four years as a nurse. She said she met Sam Peckinpah in the hospital a few times, always due to his drinking. There was something very real hearing this from a random stranger, who didn’t have much interest in film and could hardly remember his name. His alcoholism was memorable enough even for Nurses.
It ends similar to other films from the period - Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, The Graduate, etc. After all he achieved, it all came back to him. There’s something about him being a retired Army Officer that makes me think this a pretty heavy insight, obfuscated by all the guns, sex, and drinking. Bennie was waiting on his comeuppance for a long time, as was Sam.
BELOW: The opening scene, taking place in what feels to be the Wild West
Thoughts on films, old and new
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