The first thing one notices about the film is that the production values have significantly decreased since his last film. Because Pat Garrett was a commercial failure, this film only got 1/3 of that film's budget, which was already low. This does come out as a negative at different parts of the film. The sound quality is not perfect and he obviously could not afford a huge name like Dylan to do the score to this film. Some scenes clearly show the strains of the low budget. In the graveyard scene it is clear in further away shots that there is really only a pile of empty clothes in the coffin, and I'm pretty sure they were trying to do a day-for-night shot in those scenes (never a good idea). The film also has a bit of an over reliance on slow motion.
Of course I obviously loved the film in spite of these problems or I would not have given it such praise earlier. There is much to be loved about this 70s exploitation film. First off, the acting and the characters are superb. To start off with we have our main protagonist. No, it is not Alfredo Garcia, nor is it the man who kills him. The great plot point of the film is that Garcia is already dead, and our main character is only searching for his grave site to find his head in order to get a reward (though the two have an interesting tangential relationship). Our main character is Bennie, a sleazy piano player pretending to be a tough guy. He can't pass up the chance to get $10,000 seemingly so easily. However, he finds as the film goes on that his path is not so easy, and ironically, though he does not have to actually kill Garcia to get his head, he ends up having to kill quite a few other people to complete his quest, which moves from a quest for money to a quest for understanding in the face of senseless death to a quest for vengeance. Throughout the film the actor Warren Oates does a phenomenal job portraying Oates weaknesses and yet also his determination, and as the shit starts piling up he does a wonderful job portraying the mental strain Bennie is going through. This is really what sets the film apart from other 70s exploitation schlock, the acting is fantastic and deep from nearly all involved, especially with Oates. Plus he does great at the kick-ass violence we've come to expect from this genre and director.
Since they got Bob Dylan to do the score for the last film, Oates should have just called up his buddy Hall and the two of them could have done the score. Introducing his whore girlfriend with "Maneater" playing in the background would have been awesome!
Isela Vega also gives a great performance as Bennie's whore girlfriend Elita. Besides giving us some eye candy and some truly emotional love scenes between our leads, her character is critical to the plot in many ways. Firstly, she sets up a link between our main character and the object of his quest Garcia. She has not seen Bennie in 3 days because she has been sleeping with Garcia. This allows her to take Bennie to his destination, as well as creates an emotional connection between Bennie and this man he has never even met. Secondly, she gives Bennie a purpose to his quest beyond money: he wants to use the cash to help the two of them escape this horrid life so they can get married. This allows us to sympathize much more with our main character. Finally, Elita function's as Bennie's moral and mental rock. She tries to dissuade him from the quest for moral reasons, and the tragedies that befall them foreshadow the horrors that are to come. When Elita is killed, Bennie loses his mental and moral ties to this world, we see him slowly unravel, and he moves off his quest for money into a quest to comprehend why anyone would want Garcia's head, how his head could possibly be worth the life of his beloved, and eventually into a simple quest for revenge.
Wow, two characters are having a peaceful moment in a Peckinpah film. You know that's not gonna last.
This kind of intricate plotting really shows why Peckinpah was a cut above the rest. Unfortunately, this character is also involved in one of the most dated and controversial scenes in the movie. So the two lovebirds are having a picnic when two scruffy White guys on motorcycles show up. I immediately think, "Oh, great, they're going to rape her," and of course I am proven right almost immediately. Kris Kristofferson, who played the lead role of Billy in Peckinpah's last film is now consigned to a minor role with very few lines as the biker who rapes her. However, after stripping her and hitting her, he seems to have a moment of weakness and goes off to sulk under a rock. Touched by his show of vulnerability, she goes to him to comfort him and immediately starts to passionately and willingly make out with him before Benny can come and shoot him. The idea that a woman would act this way after she was about to be raped towards her assailant is ridiculous and completely sexist, though unfortunately not atypical of films from this time or genre (nor of Westerns on this time, since Clint Eastwood could pretty much rape any woman in a film and they would apparently like it). This is a big fault of the film, though typical of Peckinpah's obsession with sex and violence.
So, why does anyone want Garcia's head? Well, apparently, before he kicked the bucket, Garcia worked for a man known only as El Jefe (played menacingly by Emilio Fernandez). He was all set to be the bosses heir when it becomes clear that he has made the fatal mistake of knocking up the boss' daughter (don't they always?). El Jefe tortures his daughter in from of her mother to get her to talk (setting the tone of the film in a shocking but well-done way), then offers $1 million for Garcia's head. Clearly this guy doesn't fuck around, and is only interested in his image, viewing his daughter as property that has been violated and his trust betrayed by someone he considered a son. In fact in a darkly hilarious ironic twist, Bennie shows up with the head of Garcia the moment his child has just been baptized, and the delighted grandfather plays with his grandson while his daughter looks on in horror at the head of her lover. In perhaps the best part of the movie, Bennie shoots EL Jefe's guards to avenge his beloved Elita, and while he has his gun pointed at El Jefe, his daughter looks him right in the eye and says, "Kill him." Bennie does, and El Jefe's wife smiles as he makes his getaway.
Weren't expecting that one were ya buddy? Who's El Jefe now!
Even the more stereotypical roles in the film are delightful and well done. Benny is first hired by two White guys in business attire who are complete fish out of water in the slums of Mexico. For one thing, they are more psychotic and unpredictable about their violence than the Mexican characters. A scene where a whore rubs her hand sexily across one of their thighs and the guy just decks her by slamming his elbow in her face comes right out of nowhere and foreshadows the unexpected violence that is to come. When they meet Bennie on the road after he has been accosted by Garcia's family, they pull out automatic weapons and start blasting everything in sight. They certainly add a lot of fun to the film.
Whether they be bikers, mobster, businessmen, or cops, White guys in exploitation films are always hilariously huge assholes.
Beyond what I have already mentioned there are many other incredibly smart touches that raise this film above other exploitation films of this time. As Bennie goes mad he starts talking to and berating Garcia's head. In a great scene he asks the head, "why does everybody want you, what makes you so valuable? Are you full of silver and gems..." and them he flips over the head in a bag to reveal it is covered in flies, beautifully done. On top of that, the low budget of the film gives it a wonderfully earthy and gritty sort of feel. Bennie becomes increasingly dirty physically and his soul becomes besmirched with his evil deeds. You can really feel the heat and smell the sweat and rotting flesh as the car drives on in the Mexican heat. The sex is very earthy too. The 60s and 70s were a time when men and women alike could be portrayed totally naturally and still be seen as sexy, after the time of the picture-perfect starlets of the 30s-50s but before the airbrushed and digitally enhanced "perfection" of today's actresses. Also, the director's own alcohol problems show through in the fact that everyone is drinking constantly, even while driving. This all gives the film a natural feel that gives the plot greater depth and makes the violence, sexual or otherwise, that much more shocking. Today you can fill a screen with digital gore, but often it is nowhere near as shocking as simple cheap practical effects in a realistic setting. All in all this film delivers all of the violence and sex I came to expect with quite a bit of artistry, great acting and intricate plot that I did not expect. I give this film an 8/10 Amazing grade.