Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Day 131: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) - Rank 4.5/5


This film originally came up in a discussion between my friend Dave and I at a funeral of all places. We were sequestered in the back row of the church, like two lepers, for we were the tallest folks there. Prior to "Rock of Ages" or whatever stereotypical music came over the loudspeakers, we were debating on what film could be considered the greatest character actor film of all time. I'd pointed out that practically anything by Joe Dante or Christopher Guest would fall into this category and he brought up the work of Sam Peckinpah and particularly this film. Being a fan of Peckinpah after "The Wild Bunch" and "Ride the High Country," I was intrigued at the prospect of the film. Little did I know that upon viewing it that I would slip into a state of blissful contentment as my favorite character actor of all time appeared on the screen within the first ten minutes. A veteran of the screen who was your man if you needed an asshole character in your film. None other than...
...that's right, R.G. Armstrong. He's a bible-quoting, rifle-toting deputy determined to make Billy the Kid beg for repentance from the Lord. At this point in time, I believe that only R.G. Armstrong and L.Q. Jones remain when it comes to still-living Peckinpah stock actors. Not only were these two present in "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," but they were joined by Harry Dean Stanton, Slim Pickens, Richard Jaeckel, Jack Elam, Jason Robards, Chills Wills and Elisha Cook Jr. James Coburn turns in a dark and complex performance as Pat Garrett, the new lawman hired by the corporations slowly taking ownership over the west, to kill Billy the Kid. Kris Kristofferson plays Billy the Kid with a mix of impish glee as well as a threatening disposition. Between the two of them, the body count stacks up high (rivaling "The Wild Bunch's" over the course of the film). Even Bob Dylan plays a major role apart from writing "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" for the film.

But "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" rises above the simple classification of a "spaghetti western." At its heart, it's a close look at the relationship between two men who once were friends and still aren't that far apart. Garrett knows he has to kill Billy because times are changing and with corporate America expanding into the wilds of the southwest US, it's the only way for an individual of his stature to make a living. As such, there's a quiet tension within Coburn's Garrett, for the character seems to realize that in eliminating one of the last prolific outlaws of the era, a large part of the world he once knew and hails from will be gone forever. This is complicated with the burden of killing someone that was once his compatriot. Peckinpah's script is wrought with cynicism of the disappearance of the mythical "Old West" for the film opens with the execution of Pat Garrett at the hands of those who hired him to Kill Billy the Kid. This level of complexity certainly pushes the film to the rank of being one of Sam Peckinpah's best.

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