30 January 2008

Movielog, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, 1974
Written by Sam Peckinpah and Gordon T. Dawson
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
112 minutes

Some movies become great by direction and writing. Some by editing, by effects, by a single great scene or a wonderful sequence.

And some become great because of performance. A central, amazing performance that becomes iconic, that gives the film life. That is the case here in Warren Oates' performance in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Not that the movie is otherwise bad -- Peckinpah is a good director and a good writer, and that's a fair percentage of even the best performance. But... well, let me explain.

The film opens with a young girl, pregnant, sitting upon the side of a river. She is taken by armed men and brought inside, before an angry-looking man. This is her father, and he demands to know who the father is. He forces the words, "Alfredo Garcia," from her, and declares, "Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia." An army of people is shown leaving, all seeking vengeance against this man who sullied his daughter's honor.

Cut to a bartender who plays piano in a Mexican dive bar. He is approached by two men, asked if he knows where to find the eponymous character. Nope, he says, but promises to let them know if he gets any info (they leave him a business card). Because he knows something they don't -- his girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) is a prostitute who has been seen with Garcia. Oates queries Elita, discovers that Garcia has recently been killed in a car accident, and goes to the hotel on the card. There he offers to bring them the head, for $10,000.

And that's it. The rest of the film will follow Oates and Vega as they drive across Mexico to Garcia's grave, dig him up, and carry the head back to the men seeking the cranium of the man with the wandering affections for the rich man's daughter. Peckinpah is masterful at evoking the gritty realism of the poorest parts of the country these characters travel through -- in many ways, this reminded me of Y Tu Mama Tambien in its visuals of driving through poor rural Mexico. This being a Peckinpah film, though, things aren't quite that simple, and the idyllic drive to the grave is interrupted first by two men seeking to rape the woman, and then, at the grave, the tragedy that strikes when professional bounty hunters want what Oates has discovered.

And this is where the performance comes in. Oates's character is not a professional tough guy. He's a bartender. He plays piano. But he's desperate to get out of the stinking rathole he's in, to marry his girlfriend and to build a life somewhere else, and he allows his need to escape to override his emotions and his sense. The professionals follow Oates openly, and in his alcohol-fueled daze he never even knows they're there until it's too late.

The film's final third follows Oates into madness, as he responds to the tragedy with an obsessiveness that borders on mania, then crosses that line, then goes even further than that. If the first half of the film is idyllic, the second half is the exact opposite, gritty, real, deadly. Bodies fall, blood squirts, and innocent and guilty die alike. Oates gives us a portrait of a man who is consumed by his grief, and channels it into the kind of actions that can only lead to his self-destruction.

Oates's performance is stellar, mindblowing. He consumes huge quantities of alcohol, seems to exist so organically in this gritty universe that he nearly grows from the walls. In one particularly telling moment, the first time he sleeps with his prostitute girlfriend he finds himself picking lice from his groin. It's an explosive, amazing performance, and at the end of the film you know it realistically couldn't have ended any other way.

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