This review was written on the occasion of Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray release of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the most affordable release in this format in the United States. I own the previous Kino Lorber DVD release of the film; the new 4K scan looks excellent.
“There ain’t nothing sacred about a hole in the ground or the man that’s in it. Or you. Or me.”
Sam Peckinpah’s Western work doesn’t depict the frontier as a grand stage for legendary heroes and mythical conflicts. He’s known for his gore, viscera and violence, but the foundation of his Westerns is a focus on the downtrodden. The future isn’t decided by his heroes. Hell, they can barely control their own fates as they hang blowing in the winds of the changing world. These aren’t stories about mysterious strangers righting wrongs. His stories don’t make grand pronouncements about the righteousness of American freedom. The West, in his eyes, is a place for men to kill, die, drink and reveal the worst of themselves. Same as anywhere, but maybe moreso. Peckinpah’s approach was revolutionary for the time and has created untold imitators in the five decades since.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is often regarded as Sam Peckinpah’s most authentic work, the story of a drunkard with no home and a tattered soul looking to make a new life for himself and the woman he loves in the grisliest possible way. It was made on the cheap in Mexico after the failure of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, another movie cut to hell by a studio. A notorious alcoholic recently divorced by a wife whom he beat in a drink-soaked rage, Peckinpah was burned by Hollywood. Alfredo Garcia is a violent soup of self-loathing by a man who lost everything to his own lack of self-control, knows there’s even lower to go and recognizes that his future is defined only by that descent.
Bennie (Warren Oates) is as clear a stand-in as has ever existed in a piece of fiction. He’s a nomadic bartender, a piano player who lives one drink at a time. When two men arrive in his bar asking for a man named Alfredo Garcia and indicate money is in the cards for information on the man’s whereabouts, Bennie makes the most out of the opportunity. He learns Garcia recently spent three days with his girlfriend, Elita (Isela Vega) — three days during which she’d claimed she was ill and unreachable to Bennie. Garcia told Elita he loved her. Bennie refuses to ever say such a thing.
He drags Elita along on a quest to find Garcia, armed with knowledge that none of the other bounty hunters possess: Garcia is dead, having died in a car accident a few days prior. His body is due for burial in his hometown. It’s just a matter of getting there soon enough to decapitate his body. The man who wants Garcia, a cartel don named El Jefe (Emilio Fernández), demanded Garcia’s head as proof of death. If that’s what it takes to escape to another place with Elita, Bennie’s perfectly willing to provide it.
“Hell, I’ve never been any place I want to go back to, that’s for damn sure,” Bennie tells Elita later, as they discuss where they could go after collecting the bounty. For Bennie, that doesn’t just apply to physical realms. He’s fundamentally broken; his fits of rage and jealousy over Elita, coupled with declarations of love, make him loathsome. He’s no hero. He knows it. When two bikers happen upon him and Elita camping and decide to rape Elita, he murders them. Nothing good can last. He hates Elita as much as he loves her. He hates her because he loves her. Most of all, Bennie hates himself. He hates himself most of all. More than the audience ever could.
The bleakness of Alfredo Garcia would be nothing without Oates’ stunning performance as a washed-up motherfucker who loses everything to his own choices. It all comes down to his delivery of Bennie’s first “I love you” to Elita, after the attempted rape and before everything truly goes to shit. For much of the movie, Bennie wears large sunglasses that hide his eyes and his soul. The glasses come off here, revealing nothing but a man who doesn’t know how to keep hold of what little good that crosses the path of his misbegotten life. Everything about his gruff exterior melts away. A hell of a performance.
Just as impressive is Oates’ final, violent redemption. Playing an anti-heroic piece of shit with righteous purpose is one thing, but playing one who knows he has no real purpose or plan or reason to live is another. It’s seen in the slack of his face as he smokes a cigarette next to a picture of Elita. As he speaks to her spirit with anger and hurt that she ever loved Garcia. As he makes small talk with Garcia’s decapitated head that sits beside him as they drive across the country to their ultimate fates.
It’s bleak, beautiful stuff, written and performed with the sincerity of an artist who knows even lower depths of personal hatred than he could possibly translate to the screen.