No other director has ever quite managed to have his macho mythos, and eat it too, like Sam Peckinpah. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is something like the director’s ultimate manifesto, as the film is stiflingly preoccupied with debased crumminess: Violent, nihilistic, misogynistic even by the director’s considerable standards, it nevertheless has a brute, blunt, and ultimately honest poetic force. Like its antihero, and probably like its director, the film is engagingly obstinate and prone to shooting itself in its own metaphorical foot. If the film was more visually consistent, and if the plotting more coherent, it probably wouldn’t work as well. That lack of polish conjures an unforgettable atmosphere of fevered decay and instability.
Alfredo Garcia is a companion piece to the director’s earlier Straw Dogs. Both are primarily obsessed with the primordial male urge to possess and control the female, and both are so unnerving because Peckinpah’s sensibility is informed by a weird mixture of flakey sexist pigheadedness and wounded socialist humanitarianism. Watching these films, you’re pointedly given the impression that Peckinpah essentially subscribes to the notion that all a woman needs is a great cock to cool her twitchy little jets. But the filmmaker’s sensitive portion chafes at this reduction, or, more precisely, he self-pityingly resents that this philosophy may be true, and that a woman might be pleased with only conventional masculine force and thus blinded to a man’s less tangible emotional nuances. The feelings of emasculation that inevitably arise from this anxiety are often somehow subsequently rechanneled into a working man’s outrage with high-class privilege and corruption.
Peckinpah’s films are deeply neurotic, then, particularly Straw Dogs and Alfredo Garcia. The latter’s plot purports to concern a typical thriller story of a down-and-out drunk scoundrel, here called Bennie and played with an exceptional sense of resigned and defensive self-awareness by Warren Oates, who has a shot at a once-in-a-lifetime scam that will eventually come to destroy him. Crooks offer Bennie 10 grand if he can bring them the titular head, which is actually worth a million dollars to a big deal Mexican industrialist (Emilio Fernández). But the ostensible story is beside the point. Bennie pretends Garcia’s head is about the money, but the scheme only matters to him because it reveals to him his prostitute girlfriend Elita’s (Isela Vega) infidelity, as she was also sleeping with Garcia. Eventually, Bennie, tragically alone, befriends Garcia’s decomposing, fly-invested head in a disturbing parody of male barroom camaraderie. After all, they both loved and lost the same woman.
The crime plot is really an ode to egotistical futility. Garcia is dead before the movie begins, but the rich Mexican family that feels slighted by his impregnation of their child (whom they torture in the film’s ugliest scene for the father’s identity) doesn’t know that, and so amends must be made. Bennie is engaged in the same kind of compensatory power struggle with Elita, who strayed, in a male-absorbed logic traditional to Peckinpah’s films, because Bennie wouldn’t tell her he loved her, and who threatens to stray again in a quasi-rape scene that’s even more troublingly erotic than the similar sequence in Straw Dogs. Elita’s psychology is never much deeper than that of the B-movie sex vixen; she’s played with warm strength by Vega, but the character’s a fantasy figure mostly defined by her gorgeous breasts. Bennie’s motivations in relation to Elita, however, are often painfully, pitifully truthful. Bennie wants Elita’s unconditional love and loyalty without having to allow her to understand that he seeks this devotion from her, not only out of possessive pride, but out of vulnerability that springs from affection.
Most action-film violence is a symbol of stifled personal connection. Recall, for example, the vast number of action movies that ask us to consider the hero and villain as either literal or figurative siblings, divided by misunderstanding. Similarly, Bennie goes on a killing spree because he couldn’t fully commit to his life with Elita while she was alive, and his ensuing acts of violent reprisal for her inadvertent death reveal the film to be one of the more disturbing portraits of an advanced alcoholic to be found in American cinema. Peckinpah understands the relentless loneliness that goes with attempting to medicate your social hang-ups and disenchantments as well as the hopelessness that can lead to rash actions such as the symbolic suicide that concludes this film. Characterized by disconnection, despair, self-loathing, and resentment of his perceived betters, Bennie’s life is a punishingly shiftless one spent baking in the sun, loaded, while stewing in bitter juices eking out a marginal living at a bar’s piano, and the perverted money quest only underlines the alienated flimsiness of his existence. And Peckinpah eventually has the daring to throw out most of his plot so as to follow the only thread that matters, as it ties together the film’s various sexist, classist, and racist aggressions: a man’s unrelenting pursuit of the black hole leading to his private oblivion.
The image is an appropriate mixed bag. There are clarity issues, background information is sometimes murky, and grain levels are occasionally unusually unrefined for a Blu-ray edition, but the truth is that Alfredo Garcia is supposed to look like hot shit. This tour of a man’s journey from lower- to upper-class Mexican hell shouldn’t be polished, but this edition still represents a major step forward from the prior MGM DVD. Foreground information is drastically improved, and colors are generally vibrant throughout. The English mono track is similarly flawed: There are portions of dialogue that are difficult to discern, but this was a problem on the prior DVD as well, and is potentially reflective of Sam Peckinpah’s run-and-gun, expressionist vérité methods of filmmaking. Not a definitive edition, but the rough textures of this sweaty masterpiece shouldn’t be sanded down much further anyway.
The supplements are surprisingly frank about Peckinpah’s reputation as a difficult and dangerous eccentric. The various featurettes present a variety of well-assembled Peckinpah anecdotes as related by a wide assortment of former colleagues, but the real gold here can be found in the two audio commentaries. The first track, with writer-producer Gordon T. Dawson and film historian Nick Redman, is the best, as Dawson can obviously directly address many of Redman’s theories and questions. Particularly well-covered is Peckinpah’s infatuation with Mexico, which he seemed to see as a land that reflected his own wounded, disenfranchised heart right back to him, until he fell out with a number of people for a variety of somewhat hushed-up reasons. The alcoholism, the macho self-loathing, the hunger for trouble, the film’s not-so-coincidental resemblances to Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano, Dawson discusses it all, but in a manner that reflects ambiguous affection for a former boss rather than a craven desire to settle past scores. The second commentary, with Redman and fellow film historians Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle, is logically more oriented toward theory, and it’s fun to listen to these men as they attempt to corral the film’s lapses of logic or judgment into a coherent artistic vision. (One of the great characteristics of Peckinpah’s films is that they can’t be reduced or explained in this fashion. The filmmaker liked to color outside the lines and threw seemingly everything in his mind onto the screen, regardless of whether or not his impulses fit the specific story being told.)
This obsessive and troubled autobiography in genre film’s clothing receives a correspondingly uneven transfer that scans as aesthetically and even spiritually apropos. The supplements, however, are an unambiguous delight.