United States, 1973
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
With James Coburn (Pat Garrett), Kris Kristofferson (Billy the Kid), Barry Sullivan (Chisum)
The last western shot by director Sam Peckinpah begins with a stunning and shocking cross-cut editing, blending a brownish cinematography capturing an old man and his companions discussing business matters before getting under fire from gunmen set to kill him, and succeeding in the grisly job shot with much effect and much cruelty, with crisper, more natural images showing even more callous gun violence, occuring according to a title years earlier, as a gang of gunslingers train their skills by beheading chicken half-buried in the earth, till another bad guy turns up, proving to be as great a shooter than their leader and looking like the younger self of the old guy killed in that brownish world.
How this blast from the past would lead to the assassination opening the film is what is related in the rest of the film, over a little less than two hours. The why is quickly explained in the introduction, once the intruder, Pat Garrett, and the gang leader, Billy the Kid, who have been acquainted for years start to chat around a bottle of whiskey. “Times have changed”, Pat Garrett would say. That is all, and Billy the Kid nods. Later, as Pat Garrett is chasing for a second time Billy the Kid, he tells a fellow sheriff that there is always a time in a man’s life when he should view his life and future differently – that is, looking for security and if possible prosperity. Times change, so does a mind. The consequence is that Pat Garrett is now a sheriff and one of his tasks is to put an end to the thuggery and stealing that have made Billy the Kid so famous – that is, to repudiate his own life as an outlaw, who at one point even was the role model of Billy the Kid, to renege on his past allegiances, to redeem himself by crushing other outlaws and catering to the needs of the rich and powerful.
A first attempt to catch Billy the Kid is a massacre, splendidly shot with wide shots and the closer look at the ordeal of Billy’s companions trapped in a little shack in the middle of a sun-burnt valley, but ends up with the capture of the young man. But he manages to escape his jail, seemingly with the support of the town. So a second attempt must be set up – and most of the film is the chronicle of that manhunt which ends this time with Billy’s killing by Garrett, which is precisely what the outlaw turned law officer has always hoped he could avoid and which would shock him, leading to an extraordinary scene shot at the dawn of the fateful night, the silence of the killer, his aides, Billy’s sidekicks, and Billy’s lover conveying as the sky’s hues change an awesome feeling of mourning, sadness, hopelessness.
The manhunt is not really follow a clear, smooth, readable narrative stream. It has something remarkably messy and desultory, unhurried and confused. It can be put down to Billy’s own hesitation on what course to take and where to go, but it also reflects how the chase feels like a challenge to Garrett. It allows the film to wander through the arid, spectacular lands of New Mexico and to survey the many faces of the folks struggling to live off this young American territory.
Violence prevails, more brutal and inevitable than ever. When Billy stumbles upon one of Garrett’s deputies in a coaching inn, a spot in the middle of nowhere managed by a family Billy knows well and gets along with fine, tension inevitably rises. The way it reaches a climax is more surprising: a real reluctance to settle things is palpable, the deputy sheriff looking embarrassed, viewing the coming fight as a thankless job still to be carried out, dithering, blundering, while the outlaw struggles to display anger and eagerness. The law enforcer eventually makes a mistake and gets badly shot while the outlaw does feel sorry and leaves the place dissatisfied – the scene foretells the finale, when the roles are reversed but the effect is similar: blood is shed because it cannot be otherwise and yet it feels disgusting.
Like in his 1969 great and somber western movie, “The Wide Bunch”, Peckinpah uncomfortably emphasizes how this widespread, and yet undesirable, even regretted, violence is tragically the natural environment where children grow up, getting used to it, taking it in strides, shaping their behaviors. The many children of the couple running the coaching inn would just gawk as the antagonists duel; other kids would run away gaily with the beheaded chicken; others would play carefree with the noose awaiting Billy. America seems to bequeath a most grim and inhuman world, with violence as a hopeless way of life, to survive or to protest: the film ends with a kid throwing pebbles at Garrett and his aides as they ride away from the dead body of Billy the Kid.
This final image of anger and revolt is a reminder of how popular Billy has been. The outlaw was after all standing up against a violent order benefiting the wealthier and what he clearly expresses how he resents the that his erstwhile companion was supported by a powerful rancher, who delivered him all the votes needed to get elected sheriff. Chisum is often evoked, his underlings shot killing and torturing whoever trespass his sprawling properties, but he comes into sight belatedly and briefly, but the scene is chilling enough, leaving no doubt about how ruthless, disparaging, haughty he is and what an awesome power he wields. The clash between Garrett and Billy thus illustrate a crucial fault line of the vaunted freedom of the West, that the place is contaminated and spoiled by greed and capitalism. More roguish and stubborn than ever, Billy refuses to accept the change and stands by his friends and the poor, while Garrett, feeling old and growing wary, embraces the new order – though without any enthusiasm (a candid, irreverent talk with two businessmen at the state governor’s palace makes this point plain, and comically so).
“Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” stuns with a wide vision that boldly veers from one singular atmosphere to its polar opposite in a wink, without transition: the camera captures the hectic stream of life and death as it happens, with events seguing into each other abruptly, delivering a jarring, baffling continuity within the same space. All that is needed is a group of folks coming up from nowhere: then a playful chase of turkeys involving Billy and a few pals morphs into a repugnant killing and a spectacular gunfight as Chisum’s guys ride into the scenic shot; or the brutal, unabashedly misogynistic, interrogation of a hooker by Garrett suddenly becomes a joyous orgy as others prostitutes step gaily into the hotel room, the rest of the scene getting a wholly unexpected and incredible light-hearted and raunchy quality (that could be read as being equally misogynistic by the way; or the wait in a bar run by an old friend switches from a brooding moment to vicious game of humiliation, the camera using all along the same angles, once three of Billy’s sidekicks arrive. These sudden shifts of mood and register fit with the overall sentiment of real mess and destructive chaos the narrative is and in fact any honest and straightforward western should be according to Peckinpah (who was reportedly even more drunken, obstreperous, unruly as ever, while his production overran the budget and the schedule).