ScreeningNotes’s review published on Letterboxd:
"Maybe he wants to have a drink with me."
Dishonorable poem of poetic dishonor. Socially conscious, post-counterculture, rock & roll western. The story of a man who doesn't want to run being chased by a man who doesn't want to catch him. Lethargy. Inertia. Stasis.
The western genre is typically characterized by a conflict between regretful mourning for the loss of the frontier and cautious optimism for the approach of civilization, but where the prototypical western myth tends to celebrate the arrival of civilized society, Peckinpah is more hesitant to embrace this socialization. While historically located in the same time period as most westerns (it takes place one year after Stagecoach), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid restricts itself almost single-mindedly to the incipient civilization of Lincoln County (there are scenes in the frontier, but they lack the kind of epic, sweeping landscape shots to make them mythical). By deploying the tropes of the western genre in such a world, Peckinpah shows how savagery cannot be limited to the frontier—not only the savagery of (racist portrayals of) Native Americans, but also of the figure of the cowboy/outlaw himself.
Savagery in Peckinpah's westerns permeates straight into society itself. He seems afraid that the supposedly civilized society that will eventually sweep away these conflicted but not irredeemable men (the two title characters) is just the chaos of the frontier dressed up in the artificial justification of its rules and regulations. The law is repeatedly portrayed in his films as a scapegoat, an excuse used by weak men to justify their weak morality, when the real test of the goodness of a society is the interpersonal ethics of its inhabitants (a Kantian topic taken up most explicitly in Ride the High Country). This makes it all the more interesting that he chooses to set his films at a point when most of the frontier has disappeared: even without this visual marker, it still obviously feels like a western, but the savagery of the frontier is displaced/transposed onto the civilization that is replacing it, questioning whether there's actually been any progress or if we've just created different names for the same things.
Peckinpah's films are much more resigned eulogy than optimistic celebration; even the bacchanalia of Pat sleeping with five women seems to come from a place of reservation, as if he's giving in to the inevitability of a degrading future. He shows us a world so corrupt that the corruption begins to seep into even the most moral of men. These men are able to accomplish the goals they set out for themselves, but in doing so they see that it wasn't what they really wanted to begin with.
It's easy to get lost in this spiral of hopelessness, but while there's a lot of sadness and apathy and self-destruction in Peckinpah's westerns, I do think he sees a light at the end of the tunnel—not an inevitable one, but rather one worth working toward. We may live in a world of corruption, but if we can learn from the lessons of his films (create a positive contrast to his negative, tragic characters) there's a better world to be had. If we don't sell out our moral compass to the highest bidder and instead create our own ethical codes (embrace our duty as our own without reference to displaced figures of authority) we have a chance of avoiding the tragedy of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
This radical rejection of social power structures and embrace of subjective morality born out of pessimism is what fascinates me about Sam Peckinpah and what I think makes him a crucial author in the narrative of the American West.
Outside the obvious greatness of Sam Peckinpah and John Coquillon behind the camera and James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson in front of it, the film has a great supporting cast, including Harry Dean Stanton and Slim Pickins, and the Bob Dylan score fits the material perfectly and feels pretty unique. The opening and closing scenes are also marvels of editing which are not only provocative visually but also profound thematically (we see future-Pat's assassins replaced by past-Billy shooting future-Pat across a five year cut; we see those same assassins shooting at future-Pat but hitting defenseless chickens in the past; and we even see past-Pat shooting future-Pat over the same temporal distance).
This film was also plagued by the all-too-common problem of studio interference. I watched the 1988 Preview Cut of the film, which is closer to Peckinpah's original vision of it before the studio cut over 15 minutes out (the version which Peckinpah would show to his family and friends). Unfortunately it's not in great shape (possible because it missed part of the post-production process), and in particular the sound changes levels in a pretty distracting way. There's also a 2006 re-cut restoration of the film, which is basically a compromise between the studio's theatrical cut and Peckinpah's original cut, but in terms of quality it might be the better version to watch despite its incompleteness. (For more details on the different cuts of the film, see this great article.)
I also rewatched the film with commentary shortly afterward, and I won't log it separately because I don't have anything substantive to say about it (it's certainly worth listening to), but the one bite-sized piece of information I keep thinking about from it is the way the film subtly introduces Bob Dylan's character. It's the type of thing that could easily come off as stunt casting (picture him strutting into the center of the frame with a harmonica and an acoustic guitar), but Peckinpah introduces him slowly simply by including him in group reaction shots where he's not the center of attention. This makes him feel like a part of the world before he even becomes a character.
It's been a week now since I watched this (yes, that's how far behind I am in editing and publishing my reviews; I promise I'll get to Hoop-Tober soon), and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is the kind of movie that I love more and more as I continue to process and think about it.