Monday, April 25, 2016

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

What a name for a movie: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). It's less of a title and more of a command, a blunt order that draws the audience into the depravity and anger that ensues. I'm not sure the movie entirely lives up to that title, but it certainly hooked me in.

Directed by Sam Peckinpah, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia sets itself up like the usual revenge western. A wealthy Mexican crime boss known only as El Jefe puts out a bounty for the man who seduced and impregnated his daughter, but then, we're given the first twist: this isn't the Old West. Even though El Jefe's compound is surrounded by desert, horses, and gunslingers dressed like cowboys, this is a contemporary movie.

When El Jefe demands the head of Alfredo Garcia, a man he was grooming to be his successor, the hitmen drive out in modern cars and motorcycles as if in a demolition derby. Later, Mexican cantinas are seen with Coca Cola advertisements, and one character is reading a Time magazine announcing Richard Nixon's impending impeachment.

In The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah suggested the nature of the Old West was dying. The old codes of honor, professionalism, and loyalty were being violently phased out by a rapidly encroaching modern world.  In Straw Dogs, he showed a decent, civilized man being pushed toward savage barbarism after repeated insults to his manhood. Here, Peckinpah seems to be illustrating just how violent the modern world still is and just how uncivilized it really remains.

The main character is Bennie (Warren Oates), a down-on-his-luck piano player/manager in a Mexican bar and former U.S. Army officer who gets hired by a pair of hitmen to track Garcia. Bennie learns from his prostitute girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega), a former lover of Garcia, that his target is already dead, killed in a case of drunk driving. Bennie figures it'll be easy money to drive to Garcia's grave and collect the head, using his payment to marry Elita and start a new life, but of course, nothing is that simple.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia takes a long time to get to the meat of its story. When Bennie and Elita head out to the town where Garcia is buried, the movie takes the form of a road trip. They drive along, have a picnic, make talk about their future, etc. Honestly, I didn't care too much for this section. It felt old hat and slow. There's a scene where they are threatened by a pair of bikers (including Kris Kristofferson) to liven things up, but overall, not much happens.

The movie kicks into high gear once we get to the out-of-the-way town and its dusty cemetery. Some unexpected developments occur, a few other head hunters get involved in the action, and it leads to what is essentially an extended chase as Bennie gets, loses, retrieves, and carries the head in his car as he tries to return to safely. It's a very perverse and at times blackly funny sequence as Bennie has to deal with the smell and flies (stuffing a bunch of ice into the sack with the head). Bennie starts talking to the head as if Garcia were still alive, and the effect is both insane and sad. Not knowing about El Jeffe or his daughter, Bennie becomes obsessed with learning why this head is worth such a heavy price because he himself pays a heavy one retrieving it.

Peckinpah displays his trademark showoff style. When people get shot and killed, it's in elongated slow motion, so we can watch the agony of their bodies. The style is very physical: dirt, sweat, flies, dust, heat, and grime, and the story crosses elements of the Western and the contemporary crime drama for ironic effect. Ultimately, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a delirious, intense ride, once it gets going.

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