Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) (R)

Sam Peckinpah is one of the oddest figures in cinema. His style is not completely recognizable and his choice in movies is questionable if anything. With "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" we get the rebuttal to "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid". I'll be honest, I wasn't a fan of "Butch Cassidy..." so with "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid", it wasn't exactly a picnic for me either.
The key difference between the movies is the relationship between the two title characters. In "Butch Cassidy..." the rebels are friends and communicate with witty one-liners and quick gunfire. In "Pat Garrett..." the two main characters are not friends, though they were at one point, and the movie devotes itself to seeing who kills who first.
Pat Garrett (James Coburn) cuts an imposing figure. He doesn't get pushed around and he's a terrific shot with a rifle. One of the first scenes proves that he is feared among men of...well...everywhere. His reputation precedes him. Billy the Kid (Kris Krisofferson), on the other hand, just seems kind of average. He is not as smart, not as ruthless, not as crazy, and not as fun as Pat Garrett so it's a real shame that half the movie is dedicated to him.
The set up takes some time, but when it's spelled out, it's actually fairly simple: after being outlaws together, Pat Garrett becomes a sheriff and arrests Billy the Kid who then escapes from prison. The movie becomes a cat and mouse game that spans acres of dusty terrain and encompasses weeks if not years. Pat Garrett becomes obsessed with finding Billy the Kid, and his obsession eventually leads him to see Billy as more than just a victim. Though they were friends at first, we get the idea that Billy occupies Pat's mind completely. Without Billy, there is no Pat.
It should be said that the original form for "Pat Garrett..." doesn't exist, at least not entirely. The film was a box office flop after it was drastically edited by an MGM studio head. The film was restored as much as possible to Peckinpah's original cut, but we may never know if it is exact.
Much like "McCabe & Mrs. Miller", "Pat Garrett..." tries to employ the use of a famous musician to win over some of the more churlish viewers. Bob Dylan proves the soundtrack for the movie, but it is not successful at all and has the same odd time difference that "Butch Cassidy..." suffered from.
Our setting is quite antiquated yet our music is nothing if not modern. The only movie I've seen pull this off was "Dead Man", but that movie tried to excel at the bizarre and somehow succeeded.
Peckinpah uses as much violence as he can in the most dry ways possible. Men are shot on horseback on in the middle of a field. There are times when we see both Pat and Billy as children who would just like to gleefully play with death. These are two individuals who aren't quite sane.
"Pat Garrett..." brings us a great performance from James Coburn and a not-so-great performance from Kris Kirstofferson. Coburn embodies the brutal man with just the right amount of screw loose that you believe in his obsession; but Kristofferson is so boring to watch that it makes us wonder why Pat bothered to obsess over someone like this. There is nothing to Billy's character that makes him interesting. He's Batman, essentially. He helps out those he can and he always wins. His morality is questionably, but he's an outlaw, so what should we expect? He will defend himself and he usually doesn't kill for pleasure (though one scene suggests otherwise)...for all this complexity, you would think he would be tolerable to watch...think again.
Perhaps it's the pretentiousness of it all which rings true of "Little Big Man"; but I find these 1973 cow-poke attempts at westerns to be terrible. "Bonnie and Clyde" set the standard and I have yet to see anything in the 70s or 80s that came close to matching it.
Though "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" is enjoyable for how dark it is. It's nice to see a movie that takes itself seriously, even if it's not completely successful.

Score: ★★½

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