After Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Sam Peckinpah would move away from the 1800s, although that doesn’t mean he left the Western behind. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is without a doubt a Western; it is as cracked and craggy as any of Peckinpah’s prior films, and its thematic content is almost identical, although it takes place in the 1970s. This is fitting, and perhaps the only way Peckinpah could have progressed as a director. His prior two Westerns saw the end of the era, with Peckinpah tackling the transition from the individualist, outlaw lifestyle to a more socially sanctioned form of violence bred by corrupt and violent men being buttoned up on the outside without actually curbing their violent tendencies on the inside. The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid were about the end of the West, but also about its continuity, its persistence in the modern era. The deserts and the ten-gallon hats had been replaced with institutions and machinery, with the industrial revolution and government. But the raspy habit of men fighting the only way they’d been taught how, and the curdled fact that these men were being destroyed by these ways, remained.
So what else was Peckinpah to do (besides break off into musical comedy, I suppose) but direct a spiritual successor to the Old West, a modern Western in a neo-noir guise? With Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (one of the great film titles, and the film is almost as good), he does just that. The film is less a requiem to the West than a brutally efficient, violently economical take on how the West wasn’t destroyed, but simply crammed into a three-piece suit. Peckinpah’s usual ambivalence about the West survives in Alfredo Garcia; he always found a certain romance in the rugged lifestyle but never failed to undercut that romance with the knowledge that said lifestyle always drove those men to unfulfilled lives and early death. But things have nastied up a bit, and watching Alfredo Garcia is a splash of spiky ice water on the face of the Western myth. Watching it, Peckinpah’s vision is clear: we can ode to Old West masculinity if we want, but it will ultimately destroy us, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Peckinpah, as per usual, directs with tactility and a beaten-down visual anti-poetry. Nihilism always occupied a careful room in his inn, never eating the film up but always thickly brewing underneath. Alfredo Garcia is something of the final straw, a complete transition from the scrappy Westerns of his younger days to the coagulated melancholy of the modern era. Then, melancholy is not entirely accurate; Alfredo Garcia is a film about a world in which the capacity for melancholy and sadness, and the time for them, had evaporated. Not a crying world, but a world absent emotion altogether.
Fittingly, Peckinpah directs the film like a long-lost Sam Fuller work, or a Don Siegel piece from the potboiling ’50s, a time when masculine cinematic drama meant callous, sadistic efficiency, staccato storytelling, and unvarnished, bloodthirsty social statements that developed theme and character with cruel, almost impossible starkness in a monochromatic, color-sapped world. Back when films eschewed nuance for a sort of palpable blast of minimalist power, so shocking and blunt in editing mechanics and formalist economy that every edit and shot bruised and bulleted forth on its own harried momentum. Emotional depth came not from expression, but a lack of expression, for the world was populated with bitter people who didn’t have time to express emotion anymore.
So Peckinpah percolates from beginning, when a wealthy Mexican rancher asks for the head of Alfredo Garcia (again, the title tells all) until the end, when the world would have ended had there been anything left to lose. The why of the story doesn’t matter as much as the how. A couple of bounty hunters locate a piano player, who discovers his girlfriend knows the whereabouts of Garcia’s grave. The piano player spends the rest of the film walking among the graves of humankind, and burrowing deeply into his own, to find Garcia’s grave.
Peckinpah casts Warren Oates, another of his many Western archetype actors, in a perverse, sickened role as an aging grotesque who hides his stormy eyes under sunglasses that keep him separated from the world. As with his previous films, Peckinpah uses the actor to explore the limits of the Western idea, casting a once venerable star of the genre in nasty-minded role that features an anemically gutter-digging man clawing his way out of a slump by submersing himself even further into the trash of the world. And in Peckinpah’s world, especially in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the entire world is trash. Peckinpah was famously anti-establishment, but in this film, more than anywhere else, he is anti-everything. This is a film about a man, both main character Bennie, and Peckinpah himself, raging against the dying of the light only to realize there never was any light.
The film’s anti-establishment tone may be a marker of Peckinpah’s fractured soul ever battling with Hollywood big-wigs (Alfredo Garcia was famously the only film he felt completely happy with upon release, and thus it is his most grubby and disgustingly magnetic). But if Bennie is a version of Peckinpah, the director clearly has few kind words to say about himself. Bennie is a loathsome alley cat, a ghoulish crony, and Peckinpah, wallowing in his alcoholism and personal demons in the mid-’70s, may have intended Alfredo Garcia as a self-defeating implosion of crawling existential disharmony and violence that erupts until it engulfs all of the non-violence it could erupt from in the first place. Even the concept is an unforgiving come-down from the Western: in The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett, men quest to kill each other, but in Alfredo Garcia, they are still questing to kill that which is already dead. Garcia is the corpse of the Western genre, but none of the men have moved on. They only know the one way of life, and so the death of that which they would kill only festers the bile and acid in their stomachs and their snarls even more.
At the end of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, lawman Garrett shoots two men. One is Billy, his ex-partner, and the other is himself, or his image in a mirror. But they aren’t really two creatures. Billy is Garrett, or at least Garrett’s last reminder of his own identity. In shooting Billy, he is really sabotaging himself. By defining his life around hunting Billy, his success ensured his own purposelessness, and, again, the purposelessness of a society only interested in carting off the outsiders. When the society finishes killing anyone who won’t listen, it forgets why it was doing the dirty work to begin with, and that world of forgotten purpose is the world of Alfredo Garcia. A man dedicates his life to killing another man, or finding his corpse, and discovers that he is just killing because that’s all he knows how to do. The bursts of violence in Peckinpah’s previous films have coated the world; the violence now exists in the grainy atmosphere of the forlorn world itself. Guns and blood aren’t necessary, because there’s nothing left to kill. Calling Alfredo Garcia an anti-Western is probably accurate, but it is also one of the great films in the genre, a true enthusiast of cinema that is alive with death.