Sunday, July 09, 2006

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

If you didn't know Sam Peckinpah was an alcoholic, you'd understand that by the end of this film. This is a film soaked in booze and dripping depression, and there are certain things it understands better than just about any other film. For one, it sees dynamics of power between men, women and other men and innately understands how it all works. The powerful men wield their power casually, like it was nothing (i.e. the nonchalant cruelty of El Jefe in the opening scenes), while the disenfranchised and those at the whim of said power flail and struggle against their burdens; the pistol, though, is the great equalizer. Women offer a respite from the dog-eat-dog world of manliness, but even there there's competition and power struggles -- Warren Oates, after all, is searching for the body of a man who fucked "his" woman, and among other things, Garcia's head can be seen as a symbolic revenge for a cuckolding. There's also the scene with the bikers, which is simultaneously the most fascinating and the most troubling of the film; Peckinpah's gender politics are as thorny here as they were in Straw Dogs, but at the heart of his strange misogyny is an understanding that rape is a crime of power and not sex, thus the off-putting but oddly credible shift from menace into tenderness once Isela Vega's Elita shows she's not going to put up a fight. "I've been here before, Benny, and you don't know the way," she shouts to Warren Oates (amazing as ever) as Kris Kristofferson's biker drags her away, and there's something heartbreaking about this rough and troublesome scene immediately following the clumsy beauty of the scene where Vega, with her wounded romanticism, gets Oates to ask her hand in marriage. Peckinpah's world here is a sad and besotted one, where ambitions towards escape end badly; the second half's descent into a string of violent acts makes more sense if this is viewed as a tragic love story, with Oates bonding with the only man who could understand his feelings towards a woman others would see as a common whore. (The film's most important and devastating line, from Oates to the head: "It wasn't worth her.") It's not a perfect film, as the second half does feel like a comedown from the perfectly lived-in feel of the first, no matter how you justify it. It is, however, a dark and compelling jolt of unfiltered Peckinpah; besides, there's Warren Oates, who can always be counted on to give one of the best performances you'll ever see no matter what he turns up in.

Grade: B


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