In 1864, due to frequent Apache raids from Mexico into the U.S., a Union officer decides to illegally cross the border and destroy the Apache, using a mixed army of Union troops, Confederate POWs, civilian mercenaries, and scouts.
It's 1881 in New Mexico, and the times they are a'changing. Pat Garrett, erstwhile travelling companion of the outlaw Billy the Kid has become a sheriff, tasked by cattle interests with ridding the territory of Billy. After Billy escapes, Pat assembles a posse and chases him through the territory, culminating in a final confrontation at Fort Sumner, but is unaware of the full scope of the cattle interests' plans for the New West. Written by
Ed Sutton <email@example.com>
Working with Rudy Wurlitzer, Sam Peckinpah rewrote the script in order to create a more cyclical narrative, and added a prologue and epilogue depicting Garrett's own assassination at the hands of the men who hired him to kill Billy the Kid. See more »
The amount of whisky in the bottle at Lemuel's varies depending upon whether the shot is from behind Holly or from behind Garrett. See more »
a laconic, sometimes-great take on iconic Western figures
Sam Peckinpah really is not the full problem or liability with Pat Garret & Billy the Kid, though he's not totally innocent in what shortcomings come with the film. The story by Rudy Wurlizter provides a mix of extraordinary scenes and some all-too laid-back ones or scenes that don't feel like there is any real dramatic pull or total interest in the dialog. The other great scenes, which make up the most memorable bits of the film, provide Peckinpah with enough to put his distinctive visual style and subversive approach to character dynamics and conventions of the Western genre, but the parts end up becoming greater than the whole. The version I saw, the 2005 cut, doesn't seem like it would do any more or less better with fine tuning, and it does feel like a Peckinpah movie more often than not. The story is simple, and has been told more times than one could try to count unless in historical context of the genre: Billy the Kid is a murderous criminal out on the lam, and Pat Garret, the sheriff, is out to get him by hook or by crook. The twist that Peckinpah provides at the core is that it's not a completely intense thriller with a lot of chases, but more of a journey where the two men- who before becoming Dead-or-Alive Wanted-man and newly appointed Sheriff were sort of on friendly terms (as first scene shows well and clear)- are not in a big rush to meet their fates, even if the whole experience is starting to make things all the more embittered.
Pat Garret & Billy the Kid does provide, at the very least, some very great scenes throughout- some of the best I've seen in any Peckinpah film- and is a reminder of why the director was an important figure, and remains as such, in American cinema. Scenes like the river-side bit where Pat Garret shoots at the same bottle floating in the river as the guy with his family on the river-raft does; the astoundingly dead-pan shooting scene between Billy (Kris Kristofferson) and Alamosa (Jack Elam) where they sit down for a peaceful meal and go to it without much of a fuss in front of Alamosa's family; the scene with Garret getting the man to drink in the bar too much as Alias (Bob Dylan) reads off the products on the other side of the room in order to shoot him down; the scenes (in the 2005 cut that seem fairly important) showing Garret and his attitude towards women, either with his wife or with the prostitutes. It's a shame then that after the first twenty minutes or so, which includes that unforgettable shoot-out (one of the best in Peckinpah's Westerns) as Garret first corners Billy at the hide-out and drags him off to a not-quite jail before his escape, it then goes sort of up and down in full interest.
It's not that I wouldn't recommend Pat Garret & Billy the Kid, far from it, and especially for fans of the genre looking for a grim turn of the screws on one of those old-time mythic Western stories. The only main issue is that, in an odd way, the other side of the coin that Peckinpah and his writer are working with here- subversion- has the side of almost being too at ease with itself, of being too comfortable just rolling along. This might be in part due to the leads themselves; Coburn, to be sure, is a pro as always and is especially good in the almost anti-climax at the Fort, but Kristofferson is not very well-rounded, and comes off as being sort of all grins and smiles when he should be living up a little more to his reputation. It's so against-the-grain of the old-west that it comes close (though it doesn't, contrary to what Ebert said in his review) to being dull. Luckily, Peckinpah never lets it get too uninteresting, and there's always something to look forward to, like the touching, actually poetic final scene with Slim Pickens, and seeing the likes of Stanton, Elam and Robards in various roles.
Dylan, on the other hand, is sort of a double-edged sword here. The music that he provides for the film, which includes guitar segways, lyricism and some classic songs (with 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door' just the right effect when used), is one of the very best things about the movie. But his presence as "Alias" is not as good. He seems to be there more for the sake of being in a Western, or a Peckinpah movie, and taking aside his shtick about feeling like he was a character here in a previous life or whatever, he's almost a non-entity, and alongside the seasoned character actors and old pros at doing this it doesn't feel quite right. This being said, he's not too much of a deterrent, and it's great having the music put to scenes that wouldn't be the same without it all. And, of course, it's Peckinpah all the way, with the men in a sort of damned state of affairs, knowing deep down that the chosen paths are not very easily traveled, and always surrounded by the most distinct, brutal and realistic violence possible. It's the kind of Western I probably wouldn't pass up if it came on TV and I had a good shot of whiskey, though it doesn't reach the level of practical perfection like the Wild Bunch.
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