Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid Review

Thirty years before Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid stormed cinemas, the view of the Old West was one of rewarding heroes in difficult circumstances. Henry Fonda and John Wayne had done much to present the genre as a place for respectable big shots to throw their weight around, get the girl, shoot the bad guy and be home in time for an inevitably large glass of whisky. But that was thirty years ago. Those last flickers of respectable, full-bodied heroes swaggering through dusty streets were lost, and in its place, the anti-hero antithesis of Clint Eastwood and the twirling villainy of Lee Van Cleef had produced stronger results. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid performs the latter of the two mindsets, its anti-heroes are likeable, but not all that redeemable. 

With such a lack of redeemability, it is up to those that embody the eponymous characters to give us reason to care for their fates. James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson make for an excellent leading pair. We meet them while they are at odds, but there is underlying respect even in the moments of their first, immediate shootout. It is expanded upon naturally. Somewhat similar to that of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but its major variation being these gentlemen hate one another. There is an awkward camaraderie between the two, a game of cat and mouse plays out with exceptional excitement. Cool and collected Garrett (Coburn) keeps his officers and deputies in order, while Billy the Kid (Kristofferson) makes problems for many, and for no good reason either. There is respect between the two, but not enough to stop them from attempting to end the life of the other. 

Its set-pieces benefit tremendously from a Bob Dylan-composed soundtrack. A shootout with Garrett and Kid culminates with some decent back-and-forth dialogue and some exceptional soundtrack work from Dylan. What matters most is the impact. Here, those acoustic notes are used as a backdrop to interpret character mindsets. As a few notes linger under the pause between a shootout, Sam Peckinpah’s direction holds its nerve and waits those few extra moments for an added layer of excellence. It is within these moments that Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid comes to life, and thankfully they are abundant. Shootouts and stellar moments of respect between the titular characters are the bread and butter of this feature. Peckinpah toyed with these familiar components in The Wild Bunch, but they are better realised with his gritty western ensemble that brings life to two legends of the old west.  

Composition from Dylan, direction from Peckinpah, and a supporting performance from Jason Robards. What a trio. What a time. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid represents the best of the Hollywood western, with its slick gunfights and engaging script, one that captures the violent nature of outlaws and their love of violence. “I can still hold a gun,” one gleeful outlaw says after taking a gutshot. Peckinpah captures that desire to go out in a blaze of glory, to cement their legacy, for that is all they can do. Capturing that definitive tragedy is something Peckinpah can do with no trouble, and the contrast these characters have with The Duke and Fonda are delightfully well-realised and expressed not with venom, but with countenance for the performers that moulded what was to follow.  

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