Monday, May 7, 2012

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Pretty good western -- maybe even a great one, I dunno -- but one with a few fundamental problems that kept it from being a great one, in my opinion. But, hell, even a good western is usually better than most great films from any other genre. Anyway, this is a famous (or perhaps infamous) film that I have been meaning to see for years, and I finally found a copy at my local library. It's probably not a must see, but it's definitely a should see. Anyway, I liked it.

The film is about, well, you probably already figured that out. It's about Pat Garrett, lawman, and Billy the Kid, outlaw. Well... sorta. It's actually not really about either of those two at all, nor do we learn much about them, their relationship, or their place in this society. The film actually seems to be about the Old West in general and the roles people played in history. Or maybe it's just about Westerns in general and an attempt to tear down the archetypes of the genre. Or maybe it's just about people shooting each other. It's the kind of film that either has so much depth that you can read into it any theory you want, and yet so shallow that maybe it isn't about anything at all.

That is to say, there is a lot here and I think director Sam Peckinpah is trying to say something profound on the nature of violence, vengeance, friendship, and whatever else, but I'm not sure what, either because I didn't get it or because he wasn't saying it well enough. As it is, the film starts with Pat Garrett telling Billy the Kid he's going to track him down and kill him, and then it ends with him tracking him down and killing him, and there is very little in the way of characterization or historical perspective as the events unfold. But it's all a lot of fun and so beautifully shot.

The cast is pretty phenomenal, even though they aren't all given that much to do. James Coburn is exceptional in the role of Pat Garrett, an aged, possibly self-loathing gunman given the assignment to track down and stop his former friend. Kris Kristofferson is the kid, which is funny because he was clearly thirty something, but he does have a babyface, especially since he wasn't sporting his now trademark beard. This was one of Kristofferson's first screen roles, and he was pretty great, and perfectly captured the charm and sparkle of the now infamous outlaw. And then the rest of the cast was filled with a mixture of up and coming character actors like Harry Dean Stanton and legends of the genre like Jack Elam, Slim Pickens, and Chill Wills. If you're a fan of Westerns, the extended supporting cast makes this film worth checking out.

There's also the first film role for Bob Dylan, who also provided the score. I've read some other reviews that criticized his performance, but I thought he was pretty good. His character served no purpose in the story so far as I could tell, but his performance was quirky and weird and likable. But his score was amazing and contained some exceptional songs, such as the now legendary Knockin' on Heaven's Door.

Just check out this scene:

That pretty much sums up the pace and mood of this film. And that wasn't even the death of a major character, but one that we had just met in the scene previous. This is a long, slow paced, fascinating look at the old west, but don't expect much in the way of story or historical information. But do expect to be entertained.

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