In Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Garrett (James Coburn) is ambushed in a sepia-toned “present” (1909) before the credits. As the bullets fly and bodies fall, there are shock cuts to a full-color “past” (1881), experiencing similar mayhem. The violence in the color shots is a tease, however, since it results only from Billy (Kris Kristofferson) and his gang doing target practice. A moment later, Garrett arrives to tell Billy that he’ll be coming after him—which, after the credits, segues into a real shoot out in which Billy is taken prisoner.
And that is about the extent of any motivated action in the film.
Can nostalgic fatalism hold an action movie together? Billy escapes after that shoot out, and the rest of the film follows Garrett tracking him down in one of the most languid, listless “chases” in film history. Billy and Garrett talk a lot with their respective sidekicks and interlocutors, producing plenty of colorful cameo characterizations, but both seem stuck in neutral. Everyone (including Garrett) seems to know where Billy is “hiding,” so the viewer will probably agree with the authorities that the sheriff is dawdling. And any plot complications that might enliven the action are obscured by the nearly impenetrable dialog.
There is still much to enjoy. Garrett provides a remarkably convincing reconstruction of frontier life, while the locations, photographed in rarefied, supernal light of dusty ochres and oranges, slashing the desert grit as through a prism, are a treat by themselves. Many of the incidents are individually striking, partly because the actors keep things lively. Even Bob Dylan, as the Kid’s sidekick “Alias” has a consistent presence which, if rather vaporous, remains engaging.
Dylan’s score holds the movie together, since there is otherwise little dramatic or narrative link between incidents. Peckinpah’s fondness for investing every scene with the threat of barely contained, slowly simmering violence makes it even more difficult to keep the story moving and far too much comes out of nowhere. For example, there is a sequence in which Billy and Alias hunt wild turkeys. We have no idea how they got where they are, or why, but it is brilliantly shot and cut. They are interrupted, however, by the arrival of some baddies shooting an unknown character, a scene so bewilderingly unmotivated and pointless that its only purpose seems to be to confuse the viewer.
Garrett was infamously butchered, but the 2005 “special edition” I watched, put together based on Peckinpah’s notes, still verges on the incoherent. Even the more or less given ending is so muted it feels anti-climactic. There is a core of haunting regret and ineffable sadness to the film, and it comes frustratingly close to being both a pensive, elegiac tone poem on the passing of the frontier and the notoriously difficult director’s culminating vision. All the more tragic, then, that Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid adds up to far less than the sum of its parts.