At last restored to Sam Peckinpah’s original vision, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is a wistful, defiant elegy to the outlaw spirit; a stunningly beautiful Western that believes, above all, there is no greater violation in all of life than the compromise we make to join civilization. As usual, Peckinpah limits his vision to the male gender, for throughout his illustrious career, he has stood firm against the crushing tide of compromise, weakness, and “society”, which usually serves to feminize and soften. William Bonney (Kris Kristofferson) is the focus of Peckinpah’s gaze; a nasty, uncompromising youth who isn’t above shooting a man in the back, but only out of a sense of raw survival. He’d rather die than become like his old friend Pat (James Coburn), a once-rugged partner-in-crime who has since put on a badge and joined up with “progress.” In contrast, Billy is of the past; a dying symbol of an age without borders, limits, or legal restraints. As such, each man could carve out his own vision of himself. It’s romantic folly, of course, but Peckinpah believes it with every fiber of his being.
Peppered throughout with wonderful cameos, – Jack Elam, Jason Robards, Denver Pyle, Slim Pickens, and yes, Bob Dylan – the film is lovingly shot, and packed with Peckinpah’s unique brand of stylized violence, though nowhere near the levels of The Wild Bunch. Stripped bare, it’s the story of Billy’s last stand and Pat’s dogged pursuit, but along the way we get charming vignettes that reveal the essence of the characters. Pat knows he’s selling his soul (his Mexican wife even roars that he’s “dead inside”), and deep in his tired eyes we sense that he half expects to call off the hunt and join the Kid one last time. Complimenting the film with a delicate, melancholy tone is the soundtrack by Dylan, who seems a natural at matching lyrics with the emotional content of the story. Never intrusive or heavy-handed, the music reminded me instantly of Leonard Cohen’s somber tunes from Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and helps create the impression that everything is but a dream. It’s the perfect bookend to the opening credit sequence, which harkens back to the yellowing newspapers of a long-dead era.
Again, Garrett’s character is ultimately the most fascinating, because we sense that classic inner conflict that so often defines great drama. As he states, “Comes an age in a man’s life when he don’t wanna spend time figuring what comes next,” which might sound reasonable, but to a man accustomed to the spirit of adventure and risk, it sounds more like an epitaph. Billy, on the other hand, defends the lives and honor of those being persecuted by Chisum, the ruthless land and cattle baron who, like so many villains of the Old West, worships at property’s altar, yet remains cut off from his essential manhood. He has others do the killing for him, and is a pathetic figure of privilege and good manners that masks a murderous will. But society marches on, and Chisum is the way of the future, not a ghostly relic to be forgotten. And when Billy dies – shot down like a dog after passionate intercourse – it’s not so much a selfish bandit who fades into the dust, but the last, best hope for us all.