Early on in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, itinerant drunkard Bennie (Warren Oates) tells a villainous employer, “Nobody loses all the time.” It’s a passionately defiant sentiment, but one that holds no sway in Sam Peckinpah’s brazenly ugly masterpiece. People don’t win in Peckinpah’s world—they grudgingly accept cruelty and accept their violent but inescapable punishment like men. When Bennie’s prostitute girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) is taken at gunpoint by a nefarious biker (played with grungy nonchalance by Kris Kristofferson) who plans to rape her, Bennie promises to kill the man for this heinous crime, to which Elita chastises him: “No you won’t, Bennie. I’ve been here before, and you don’t know the way.” It’s a heartbreaking summation of one woman’s life of submission, but also a premonition of Bennie’s eventual journey into Hell, which will reinforce a truth he already knows: Everyone gets screwed in the end, and hoping for anything better is the refuge of the foolish and naïve.
For something so bleak, so purposely revolting and unsentimental, there are reservoirs of profound poetry in Alfredo Garcia, the only film that Peckinpah ever considered completely his own. As the director of The Wild Bunch, The Getaway, and Straw Dogs, Peckinpah was known for his hard drinking, stubbornness, and eccentricity; indeed, his life would eventually be decimated by the strain brought about by both his constant battles with the studios who funded (and frequently butchered) his work, and by his uncontrollable thirst for alcohol. Yet for one brief moment in 1974, Peckinpah enjoyed complete creative control, and the result was this magnificently depraved piece d’resistance—a film that repulsed nearly every moviegoer who saw it and solidified his reputation among Hollywood bigwigs as a director incapable of reliably producing mainstream entertainment.
To be certain, enduring two hours of violent degenerates wallowing in their own well-deserved misery was a shocking experience even for ‘70s audiences enjoying the groundbreaking American cinema of the day. Like few modern films, Alfredo Garcia seems to not only be a product of a director’s singular vision, but a virtual window into one man’s fractured, tortured soul. It’s a film of nihilistic fury and existential dread, in which men and women attempt to escape their miserable condition but, knowing that such dreams will only lead to doom, eventually embrace their lives’ dead-end paths. Every exchange between Bennie and Elita is laden with portentous despair, every caress a brief reprieve from acknowledging their aspirations as mere fantasy. Elita, trying to dissuade her lover from his mission, tells Bennie that just being together is enough. Bennie responds by telling her that it takes dinero as well. But neither being together nor obtaining monetary wealth will provide relief from their anguish, and their half-hearted attempts to fool each other into thinking otherwise speaks volumes about the fatalistic aura that hangs over the action like a shroud.
Bennie is a lowlife lounge singer working in a seedy Mexican dive, experiencing life through the filter of a drunken haze and his enormous sunglasses (which he even wears to sleep). He’s hired by two businessmen (Robert Webber and Gig Young) to find a lothario named Alfredo Garcia in exchange for $10,000—Alfredo is wanted for knocking up the daughter of a wealthy rancher, who wants his head as proof that he’s dead. Peckinpah, using a well-placed Time magazine cover, links these evil corporate wonks with Richard Nixon (one can even spot a caricature of the former commander-in-chief on a faux dollar bill behind Bennie’s piano), but Alfredo Garcia is not a political diatribe. Rather, these presidential allusions merely reinforce the director’s anti-establishment leanings and general distrust of corporate America. Bennie is the common man disenfranchised by a mainstream capitalist society that seeks the eradication of a rural life that Peckinpah holds dear—just another pawn to be used and abused as the powers-that-be see fit.
In a fortuitous (but painful) twist of fate, Bennie discovers that his paramour Elita was carrying on with the wanted man. Elita tells Bennie that Alfredo is dead, and the two set off in search of his corpse. They find a dust-covered countryside populated by reprobates, renegade bandits, and Alfredo’s family, none of whom take too kindly to Bennie’s decapitation plans, and what follows is apocalyptic mayhem of the highest order. After Elita is nearly raped and then murdered, and he’s left for dead by double-crossing bounty hunters, Bennie strikes up an unlikely friendship with Alfredo’s head (which he affectionately dubs “Al”), and strives to redeem himself by placing revenge above greed on his short list of priorities. Then, for all his trouble, he’s shot down like a rabid dog.
Peckinpah orchestrates this satanic circus with righteous majesty, embellishing the action with his trademark violence—presented with his usual stunning combination of slow motion, multiple camera angles, and visceral editing—and, unfortunately, his signature misogyny. Yet more so than in any of his other films, Peckinpah reserves no remorse for the men in Alfredo Garcia, all of whom suffer one crippling physical and/or psychological wound after another. Bennie begins a one-sided dialogue with Alfredo’s rotting, fly-infested head and, through these conversations (which send the film’s perversity quotient into the stratosphere), recognizes the folly of his quest. Desperate for redemption, he douses Alfredo’s head in alcohol and, later, places Alfredo’s head under the shower in a moment that references an earlier scene with Elita. Water becomes a symbolic cleansing agent, but it cannot change the fact that Elita dies, Alfredo has been reduced to a cranium in a burlap bag, and Bennie has no chance of surviving this ordeal.
At the center of this maelstrom is legendary western icon Warren Oates, whose performance as the film’s anti-hero borders on maniacal insanity. The actor uses his creased face, perpetually snarling lips, and slumped, slightly asymmetrical posture to project a terminal world-weariness. His ragged grin as grubby as it is pathetic, Oates seems engaged in an actorly free-for-all in which boundaries regarding moderation and propriety are erected just so they can be gleefully bulldozed. His performance is as compulsively vile as it is brave and compelling, and the fact that it was reportedly based on Peckinpah himself only imbues it with an added layer of foul grandeur. This all turns Bennie’s quest for vengeance and salvation into an allegory for the director’s own professional battles with Hollywood bureaucracy.
Such decrepit beauty is most powerfully realized during the film’s opening scene, in which the rancher demands that his pregnant daughter reveal the name of her child’s father. A mythic paternal monster sitting on his throne, he has his child stripped bare and her arm broken in front of family, gunslingers, businessmen, and clergy, producing a terrifying apex of operatic humiliation and violation that’s bibilical in its viciousness. The same could be said for the film itself, which takes pleasure in subjecting its protagonists to a hellish and worthless quest to murder a man who is already dead. It’s an ironic declaration of life’s unending and irrational wretchedness from a director who knew such truths firsthand. Few filmmakers have had the nerve to make a film as wantonly repugnant as Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Even fewer have made such nastiness this bizarrely spellbinding.