Credit: Sony
by Nicholas Yap Featured Film Kicking the Canon

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia | Sam Peckinpah

August 18, 2021

If ever evidence was needed of art criticism’s role as a passing functionary in the workings of cultural amusement and consumption, one need look no further than Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Seen today, it registers less as a cohesive, singular vision than one curdled into shapeless abstrusity over time, more so with the palliative reappraisal of a modern audience it has since enjoyed. It inhabits a null-zone fashioned from the dramatic cavities of the neo-Western, the lengthy silences and pauses before each rupture of flesh alternately distended and articulated in their finitude, always building towards doom. It’s a film where a man’s most reliable source of company is the severed head he was paid to retrieve, its putrid aura calling to mind his own relative vitality. It’s also a film that finds as much worth in scouring the massacre of a family of laborers as Gig Young’s grinning reaction to it, chortling at his professional handiwork. Perhaps most of all, though, it’s a film that, at risk of further contributing to the myth-making that’s presided over Peckinpah’s authorial voice in the intervening years, serves as a barbed rejoinder to the preceding decade of creative straitjacketing at the hands of an avaricious studio system. To enter this domain is to witness, in the words of Roberto Bolaño, a great master “[struggling] against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.” Time wouldn’t prove easy on the director, either — a near-decade, four films, and a severe cocaine addiction later, his heart gave out in the process of scripting a new project.

In Warren Oates’ performance is crystallized not just the totality of Peckinpah’s leading-man playbook, but very possibly the filmmaker’s being itself. His Bennie’s wiry frame, whiskey-smooth demeanor, and mystique, communicated in part by a pair of shades clapped over his eyes that reflect something like a haecceity of human unknowability, stand out as the makings of a cinematic icon. Of course, this pedigree rubs up against the filth and general squalor of his environment as diagrammed by Peckinpah’s imagination, and we come to understand it as a salve against the hard-going conditions of his workplace, a seedy cantina in Mexico City’s underbelly. The same place attracts two hitmen, Sappensly and Quill, in search of the titular condemned, who make conversation with Bennie in an attempt to suss out the poor sod’s whereabouts. Quite fortuitously, Bennie’s girlfriend, Elita (played to devastating perfection by Isela Vega) reveals her affair with Garcia and that he recently died in a car accident, fulfilling their end of the hunt. Bennie reconvenes with the hitmen, offering to retrieve the head for a share of the reward money, and the couple, believing they can surmount the world’s cruelties in pursuing a better life together, set off hand-in-hand toward the mushroom cloud on the horizon. Despite the film’s reputation for its unrelenting viciousness, it’s precisely this lead-in that stands at odds with its director’s supposed misanthropy, as has been reductively claimed by some: his is not a death drive, but devotion to that most elusive and blinding forces of all, a binding contract of the heart that propels two lovers into a shared apocalypse. And indeed, it is his overzealous commitment to showcasing the obstacles they face, and the vile depredations they endure along the way, that has generated controversy. Before any messy business with Garcia even occurs, the duo is set upon by two bikers during a picnic, and in a desperate effort to protect Bennie, Elita leads one of them away with the promise of sex. While at first glance a facsimile of Straw Dogs’ central rape scene and its nettling significations, Elita’s actions are not connected to some lurid, innate perversion, and the resultant act, on the part of the biker, is never excused away. Rather, they represent a moral choice to save a loved one (notably contrasted with Bennie’s sheer impotence in the face of this situation, and inability to rescue Elita from it) no matter the pain inflicted on oneself in so doing, that injects a measure of humanity into a landscape long bled dry of it.

Following past incarnations of civilization in his filmography as the ideals and convictions held by a select group against the cross swells of modernity, Peckinpah’s concerns are redrawn here to encapsulate, too, tough-guy machismo — the kind characteristic of his protagonists. Gone are the stubborn, if well-intentioned, machomen of yesteryear who keep on in fealty to a virtue system that justifies, or mollifies, the destruction caused by it. Our hero survives on luck and pure happenstance, all the while slow-roasting in a vat of his own piss and blood, his quest for dinero ending up with Elita dead and the head stolen. As narrative tissue dissolves, the segments where Bennie retrieves this object of desire are played out in increasingly strange, koan-like scenarios, and as he becomes increasingly detached from reality, it’s hard not to see him as a Peckinpah stand-in, especially given the latter’s tumultuous final years. All but divested of final-cut oversight and his stake in the industry, he soldiered on through four abundantly panned, dog-eared productions as if compelled by inner nature, restless drive, or even love for the practice, confident in the belief that “no one loses all the time.”  Through the ire of the moviegoing public and critics alike, moral guardians and grindhouse enthusiasts looking for a cheap romp, the abiding honesty and (frequently uncomfortable) intimacy of his output lingers on, dispatches from a forsaken realm daring us to avert our eyes.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.