While films like Eraserhead or Donnie Darko may be renowned for their relative weirdness, I’d wager Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid to be one of the oddest films I’ve seen in quite some time. Directed by Sam Peckinpah, the film tells an extremely straightforward story – Pat Garrett (James Coburn) was at one time an outlaw but has now embraced the law and become a sheriff. His former partner, Billy (Kris Kristofferson) still ascribes to life of crime. The two opposing sides are burdened by their commitment to each other and their divergent life styles. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid aspires to convey a sense of aging in the Old West and how the old guard cannot keep up with the changing landscape, as Sheriff Garrett hopes to capture Billy the Kid. It reminded me of Tommy Lee Jones’ character in No Country for Old Men, wherein you felt this aging lawman encounter evil-incarnate in a land that was constantly changing and leaving him behind.
But with Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, there isn’t so much a figment of evil to motivate Pat Garrett to insist upon how the land is changing. Billy the Kid is less a cold-hearted murder and more a reckless boy who is only motivated to kill when attempting to evade capture. You gather that Garrett is driven to embraces a life of decadence and moral decay (as per the hilarious orgy sequence at the end of the film), but none of that rings as particularly true or self-reflective. Perhaps that was the way he was all along? It’s unclear and comes across as unintentionally hilarious. There aren’t any great revelations here, nor a feeling that there is a grandiose statement to back up so much of this feeling of aging and being left behind.
The general problem I have with Pat Garret& Billy the Kid is its incredible awkwardness. With a grand total of six (!) editors, there’s a sense of choppiness when viewing the film. There are some incredibly dull stretches of violence (dull violence in Peckinpah is a new one) that are followed by longer stretches of dull exposition. And so much of the violence is inexplicable and shot and edited in a nonsensical manner. Bullets fly in all directions without a sense of where they are coming from. Blood spurts and the film moves on with a tired shrug. What burdens the film even more is a lousy soundtrack from Bob Dylan that completely removes you from the film altogether.
There are glimpses of excellence though, particularly in the final act, where the muted tone of the film sheds light into a more complex ideology. When Garrett and the Kid finally meet each other again, there’s a reserved sense of respect between the two that I found to be genuinely moving. But it’s too little, too late to solve the film’s incredibly dull tone and questionable moral outlook.