Sunday, June 6, 2010

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

The loners in Sam Peckinpah's films are not noble Romantics, even if they are as symbolic as anyone in John Ford's late Westerns. Peckinpah's aesthetic is too grimy, even in the poetics of its slow-motion, to lend itself to contemplation, and when his gruff characters spit out their hard-boiled dialogue, one must make an effort to draw loftiness from their words, which are too concerned with personal problems to give a damn about "the times" once "the times" start affecting things outside of their own bubble.

As with most of the director's films, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a simple story: a lawman, Garrett (James Coburn), pursues an outlaw, the Kid (Kris Kristofferson), reluctantly and even looks for ways to avoid the confrontation. Yet the film, restored almost to the director's intended vision with a 1988 Preview Version to atone for the butchering of the original, uses Peckinpah's style of jumping into the shit with his grimy characters to flesh out what so many dismissed as chauvinistic caricatures. There is no hero in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and the only true villains are left mostly off-screen.

Civilization is as corrupt in Peckinpah's West as it is in all the others, and it has consumed Garrett by the start of the film, set in 1909 as the cattle ranchers who bought him to kill Billy the Kid decades ago double-cross the aged Garrett, blasting him in an ambush as the opening credits begin to flash.

The credits sequence alone is worth a review, moving fitfully in freeze-frames that sap the color from the frame, return it, then drain it again as the text appears. As Garrett attempts to get back up to face his attackers, only to collapse back into the dirt (perfectly timed to reveal the film's title), Peckinpah moves back to 1881, when Garrett turned on his old friend, the Kid, a scene that opens with Billy's gang popping shots at chickens buried to their necks for target practice as the freeze frames continue. The juxtaposition of Garrett's helplessness in his final moments with the chickens' creates a chilling framing device, and when a younger Pat arrives in the flashback and begins to shoot the chickens from a distance to impress his old buddy, we do not feel the sense of awe and admiration that Billy's posse does. He is going to die a brutish death at the end of a miserable, regretted life, while the legend of the Kid will live on for a century.

Pat and Billy head for a drink, at which point Pat tells his buddy that he's set to become the sheriff of Lincoln County, and that this is Bill's last chance to escape to Mexico before Pat will have to chase after him. Billy won't be intimidated by the law, even when it comes in the form of his friend, and the "directed by Sam Peckinpah" credit freezes on this moment of defiance in a striking foil to the title's placement over Pat's death. There's something chilling about the entire film being laid out in the first few minutes, to the point that the last truly relevant plot point rounds out the credits, thus allowing everything that comes after to be an exploration. Furthermore, by freezing on that moment, Peckinpah shows in an instant that Billy will know glory in death that Pat will not even find in life.

Again, however, Peckinpah does not present Billy as the hero just because he does not entirely side with Pat. He presents the Kid as a wanton killer, whose occasional display of generosity and camaraderie is more a demonstration of his capriciousness than any hint of nobility. He's a rapacious, arrogant fool, ignoring the chance to flee to Mexico just because he thinks he can have some fun with Pat, who attempts at first to dispense with the matter as quickly as possible and surrounds Bill's safehouse with a massive posse the first day he becomes sheriff.

What Peckinpah demonstrates through Billy, as well as the cattle herders that come to control the territory, is that neither civilization nor the outlaw hold the answers. Even in the longer cut, Peckinpah devotes only the sparest time to the ranchers, allowing Pat to interact with each of the Chisum/Wallace/Poe alliance that creeps across the steppe once. These encounters show villains who are totally and hopelessly boring, avaricious, conniving weasels who know nothing of the living conditions of the common folk living in dusty hamlets and thus do not care. The only thing that interests them is money and power, the two dullest goals in life -- neither has any inherent worth; they are means, not ends -- and their prim dress and clean skin shows just how removed they are from the people they will force into modernity. I'm reminded of a line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when a peasant says that Arthur must be a king because "he hasn't got shit all over him." Why they even care so deeply about killing Billy the Kid isn't quite clear, other than he represents what they need to destroy in order to complete their conquest.

With these barons representing the rise of organized society in the West, it's no wonder that Billy looks appealing at times. The Kid has a magnetic energy, so beguiling many of the people he meets that entire towns will not attempt to stop him or aid the sheriffs, even when he viciously kills two deputies for everyone in Lincoln to see. One of those deputies, in fact, displays a warmth toward Billy, as he, like Pat, was once an outlaw himself; when the two play cards, Bell throws several games just to buck up the Kid's spirits before the planned execution. Yet the reason he appeals to the common man is that he openly practices a violence that society does not cure, only sweeps under the rug. As can be seen in Straw Dogs, modern society only buries mankind's penchant for barbarism, bottling it up until it explodes in a way that looks even more shocking than the many, many (seriously, many) deaths contained in Peckinpah's Westerns.

The sheer number of deaths on-screen in Pat Garrett certainly won't do anything to dispel the notion Peckinpah's critics level against the director, that he is a bestial man with an almost pornographic fixation on violence. After all, for a film that establishes its plot in the first five minutes and could have gone straight to the last three long before it does, Pat Garrett certainly spends a great deal of time exploding paint-filled squibs in slow-motion. Yet Peckinpah's attitude toward violence is always one of revulsion, a great deal of it self-directed. He does not focus on male characters out of rampant sexism but because patriarchal societies have been sociologically demonstrated to breed a violence than female-dominated societies do not; as a male himself, Peckinpah does indeed have an ingrained fascination with violence as his critics contend. Yet he sees that in himself and hates it, and Peckinpah used the graphic content in his films to rid others of the desire that consumed him, that the only true martyr in Peckinpah's filmography is himself. In his overblown, stylized orgies of death is an earnest attempt to show us how ugly it all is. His reworking of Western archetypes is entirely based on how each stereotype only trades in a different kind of violence. Rather than sit back and judge, the director throws himself into the fracas like a documentarian with aesthetic flair. Who else would show children tossing scorpions to red ants (as he did in The Wild Bunch) or a kid with his foot in a noose swaying on the yardarm as if playing on a swing (as he does here)? Those children are inured to the depravity around them, which is the last thing the director wants; it is that nonchalance that results in films like his.

Besides, there may be no better proof of Peckinpah's disgust with killing than this film, which is about a man so reluctant to kill he ironically ends up killing many other people to avoid executing his friend. In the film's most beautiful and haunting sequence, Pat recruits another town's sheriff, Colin Baker (Slim Pickens), to help smoke out Black Harris, one of Bill's gang, in order to get the Kid's location. Baker is a haunting glimpse into what Pat will become in a few years: a bored, regret-filled lawman watching everything he knew -- whether he loved it or hated it is beside the point to Peckinpah -- dies, so sick of life that he does not even exercise authority anymore -- when Pat comes calling, Baker must ask his wife where he put his badge. Baker is building a boat so he can "drift out of this damn territory," and the uselessness of the pathetic dingy he's fashioning in his yard (and its ineffectiveness in transporting him across what is almost entirely land, save a small river at the edge of town) and the futility of his desire to find some spiritual oasis that contains a hint of the good ol' days that never existed.

Baker and Pat find Harris, and a shootout, as it must, ensues. During the typical Peckinpah carnage, Baker gets shot in the stomach, but in a cold, matter-of-fact way, not the heightened manner expected of one of Sam's targets. Baker stumbles away from the fight to that river, revealed at last to be so small that even Baker's unfinished canoe could have handled the trip. Baker's wife finds himself and stands framed by the evening sky, looking at her husband with tears in her eyes, unable to speak as he looks at her and nods slightly, the life draining out of him as Peckinpah pulls back to show the tranquil of the landscape, now marred by blood. This quiet moment of hurt between two people who cannot voice their goodbye, undercuts any notion of Peckinpah as a schlock-meister. The scene even puts forward the case for Peckinpah's sense of reverse Romanticism, not one tinged with longing and admiration but elegiac remorse. Peckinpah's films remind me of the Van Morrison song "T.B. Sheets," an account of watching a loved one die of tuberculosis in quarantine that combines Morrison's impressionistic word sketches and horrifyingly precise detail that turns death into something even more frightening as poetry gives way to a stifling sense of simplicity, something that just is, something without characteristics and therefore something that cannot be truly stylized.

The outlaws of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, both the ones still howling at the moon and the ones who, like Pat, became lawmen because they valued life over happiness (and thus further emphasized the lie of the "legitimization" of these regions through law enforcement), understand the finality of it all, and death in this film becomes something of a clarifying device. A young tag-along in Billy's gang, Charlie, tells the Kid upon hearing news of Pat's defection that Garrett does not scare him, only to finally admit the opposite when the Kid and his partner stare him down. But when Garrett and his posse open fire on the safehouse and mortally wound the boy, Charlie decides to go out in a blaze of glory and notes "I ain't afraid of him now" before heading out to a swifter death than the round in his belly will give him. Ollinger, the ultra-religious deputy who watches Billy with Bell, treats the Kid roughly. When he returns to the station after hearing Billy shoot Bell, Ollinger freezes in the Kid's sights; someone shouts that the Kid killed Bell, and Bob can only whisper, "He's killed me too" before Billy pulls the trigger. Perhaps these men commit violence so much because they seek nothingness; given the option to either continue on or live pathetically in the new New World, the abyss can make for a surprisingly appealing "none of the above" option. Until that time comes, however, each must make his choice. "You're in poor company, Pat," drawls Bill when Garrett first captures him. "Yeah. I'm alive, though." "So am I." Eventually, that blustering will vanish, but for the moment the two tell their lies, as much to themselves as each other. It's telling that, when Pat at last delivers Billy from a world that's quickly eclipsing him, the outlaw-cum-lawman immediately shoots a mirror before the Kid even hits the ground, just so he won't have to face himself. Billy may have eaten his words in the end, but he didn't have to live with the shame afterward, and perhaps the 1909 ambush that bookends the film is as much a release for Pat as the nocturnal sneak attack was for Bill back in 1881.

Pat Garrett's characterization is so rich that its studio butchering seems all the more egregious even among Peckinpah's always contested corpus (only Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia hit theaters in exactly the way the director wanted it). The movie goes nowhere fast, but its deliberate pace reveals the coward underneath Pat's hardened exterior, as well as a man who truly wants nothing less than to kill his friend; when he learns of Billy's escape, he heads straight for the barber's to get a shave, casually telling a boy messenger there to have some posse members come to meet him and also to tell Mrs. Garrett that he'll be staying for dinner that night -- never chase fugitives on an empty stomach. Pat abuses prostitutes as much as Bill; more so even, as we only ever see the Kid with one at a time. The film also contains some of Peckinpah's most beautiful shots, such as a scene of Garrett riding along a lakeside, his figure covered in shadow while only the mirror image of him and his horse appears inverted in the lake; naturally, Peckinpah diverts attention away from the reluctant lawman that is the Pat Garrett we see to reveal the larger reflection of his true character, a wild man just like the Kid, and just as wretched.

Even so, Pat Garrett suffered some of the worst tampering of the director's body of work. The entire film, in fact, could well be an allegory for Peckinpah's dealings with MGM president Jim T. Aubrey, Jr. The Garrett stand-in, Aubrey, came to prominence as the tyrannical overload of CBS entertainment, which he ran with an iron fist but also to ratings dominance. Aubrey hated damn near everyone, but he had a golden touch, and the critically despised programs he put on the air (The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island) managed to win over the nation to such an extent that the other networks seemed like also-rans. When MGM tapped him to preside over their failing brand, however, even popularity didn't seem to be Aubrey's goal. Meant to oversee the massive downsizing of MGM into its new hub, the MGM Grand hotel/casino being built out in Las Vegas (the best place for a tacky shrine to something that lost so much of its luster it needs casino lights to add sparkle). Aubrey promptly axed a dozen productions upon taking the reigns and slashed others, including this film. Peckinpah was of course a tyrant in his own right, an artiste who was not only exacting on his crew but falling deeper and deeper into substance abuse problems that made him an even greater pain. But Peckinpah's madness was directed toward something, something personal, while Aubrey sold out even commercial concerns to oversee a corporation abandoning everything its people knew to turn a profit elsewhere.

Perhaps the sense of anguish over knowing his film would be sliced down to an hour-and-a-half no matter what led Peckinpah to insert himself into a scene every bit as troubling (for meta-structural reasons, not human ones) as Baker's bleed-out by the river. Just before Pat creeps into the hotel/brothel where Billy sleeps, he stops to exchange words with the Fort Sumner coffin-maker, Will. It's a part tailor-made for a character actor: Pat offers Will some whiskey, which he waves off politely but sternly before goading Pat into just getting the job done already. With Peckinpah in the role, however, Will takes on a much darker meaning. "I'm gonna put everything I own right here," Will says as he gestures to his freshly made coffin, "And I'm gonna bury it in this ground and I'm gonna leave this territory." Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid would be Peckinpah's last Western (though I'm quick to argue Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia as a revisionist Western the way I do for No Country for Old Men and other modern dust pictures), and certainly his most mistreated, and Peckinpah indeed leaves something in the dirt here. The rest of his films, even the good ones, would be made under some sort of booze-'n'-coke haze and/or artistic compromise. Faced with the bitterness of Peckinpah, the film's true symbol of Billy the Kid, Pat leaves without another word as Will heckles him, ashamed of himself and incapable of sharing space with the man who sees not only outside the situation but outside the movie. You might attribute Pat's shame as a sign of ego on behalf of the director, but I see it as a transference: Peckinpah knows that his own downfall is inevitable, so he goads Pat to just go inside and kill his avatar. Billy is already haunting Pat even before the sheriff kills him, and thus the ghost pours his sadness and regret onto his destroyer. At least the fictional version of Aubrey will live with guilt in his heart for the rest of his life.


  1. I LOVE this movie. It is without question my favorite Peckinpah film and in fact is the one that converted me to a Peckinpah fan. You hit many of the high points in your thorough review here. The scene with Slim Pickens really is one of those unforgettable sequences of American cinema. When I wrote about this one I led off mentioning that scene, as it is the first thing that comes to mind whenever I think of the movie.

    For all of Peckinpahs label as being a sadistic lover of violence, not many people realize just how subtle a director he could be. Certainly, violence runs rampant throughout much of the film. But my favorite moments are the quiet ones, where just a few words are spoken, but there power echoes. For instance, early in the film when Pat comes to beg the Kid to head for Old Mexico so that he doesn't have to hunt him down. That simple conversation of Pat saying "It feels like times have changed," and the Kid responding, "Times maybe, but not me," pretty much sums up the entire movie for me. And the power that quiet moment between friends drifting apart is powerful.

  2. Interesting review of an interesting movie. I have some thoughts on this movie too:

  3. It's a wonderful, sad movie with a unique athmosphere. And it doesn't feel violent although there's pelnty of violence - maybe the music softens it. I feel really sorry for Garrett - just to think how empty his life must have been after killing the Kid, most likely spending his time with whores and alcohol, trying to forget how alone he truly was.

    1. Absolutely. In someone else's hands (even someone as great as, say, Nick Ray), that might have been played as latent homosexual longing, but I think Peckinpah goes beyond sexuality into the sheer psychic tear of the betrayal.

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