Daily Archives: March 4, 2022

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid at Doc Films

I wrote the following review for Cinefile.info to coincide with a screening of Sam Peckinpah’s director’s cut of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid at Doc Films on March 4:

Sam Peckinpah had made elegiac westerns before PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID, notably RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (1962) and THE WILD BUNCH (1969); these films centered on aging bandits and lawmen who had “outlived their lives by far” as the mythological Old West around them was rapidly fading. But the director’s last true western focuses on the youthful title outlaw who, as embodied by outlaw-country singer Kris Kristofferson, is just one of the ways the movie flirts with the counterculture of its time and thus embodies the New Hollywood movement of the early ’70s (despite the fact that Peckinpah was old enough to be the father of most directors of the “film school generation”). The film also features a crack script by Rudy Wurlitzer—then best-known as the author of the Pynchon-approved experimental novel Nog and the original screenplay for Monte Hellman’s TWO-LANE BLACKTOP—and a superb guitar-driven score by Bob Dylan, who additionally plays the supporting role of “Alias,” a mysterious knife-throwing expert and member of Billy’s gang. While Dylan’s acting seems stiff and awkward, his music, including the original song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (written for a moving scene involving Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado), remains one of the very best things about the film. The spirit of Dylan’s work seems to have infused other aspects of the movie as well, such as the sly moment where Wurlitzer mashes up two of the bard’s best-known lyrics by having Billy ask Pat Garrett (James Coburn) “How does it feel?,” to which Garrett responds, “It feels like times have changed.” That exchange refers to Garrett’s having sold out to the corporate, politically corrupt “Santa Fe Ring,” and Billy’s betrayal by his former friend (reminiscent of the relationship dynamic between William Holden and Robert Ryan in THE WILD BUNCH) is what gives PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID its surprisingly resonant emotional core. Peckinpah’s tragic vision of former friends on opposite sides of the law (with the ironic twist that the one who lives outside the law is the more honest) is highlighted by the two brilliantly edited sequences that bookend the film. It opens with shots of Billy using chickens for target practice that are daringly intercut with shots that flash-forward to Garrett’s murder decades later. It ends with Billy’s assassination, filmed in the director’s famed “balletic” slow-motion, during which Garrett fires two shots—one into Billy’s chest and another into his own reflection in a wardrobe mirror. The original theatrical release was a version taken away from Peckinpah in post-production and brutally re-cut by MGM executives; it was understandably a critical and commercial failure. Seen here, in the director’s original “preview version,” it’s a masterpiece.


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