Warren Oates plays Benny, a washed-out piano player in a Mexican bar. He's offered ten thousand dollars if he can bring two gentlemen the head of Alfredo Garcia. Benny is lucky in that his girlfriend (the very effective Isela Vega) has just had an affair with Garcia, giving him an in to Garcia's whereabouts. As it turns out, Garcia has already died in a car accident so all Benny has to do is go, dig up the grave, remove the head and bring it back. He brings his girl friend along for the help, and so they start off on the road to hell.
This movie was either made by alcoholics or people who do a frighteningly good imitation. Peckinpah's script in the first half has Benny and his girl be alternately violent and tender to each other in a way readers of Bukowski (or god help them, people who live that lifestyle) will understand. This accurate portrayal helps excuse the world view, which a tad too often moves past general misanthropy to settle on misogyny for my tastes. Warren Oates is absolutely, utterly brilliant, the most unself-conscious and unflashy naturalistic actor of his generation. The world is totally ready for a Warren Oates revival (it helps that in this movie he walks, talks and squats like Tom Waits at his booziest), and in my opinion it can't arrive a minute too soon. He manages to make Benny a contradictory mess of pathos, courage, cowardice, anger and tenderness, utterly aware of how self-serving his justifications are while believing them at the same time.
What do I need to tell you to make you see this movie? There are people buried alive, there's Kris Kristoferson as a psycho biker, there's a slow-mo shoot-out to Muzak, there's a (literal) Mexican stand-off, and there's the essential heroic quest, stripped of all of its b.s.: a man carrying a head, trying to fight his way back from the land of the dead. The crime noir novels of the fifties are caught in this movie, and I don't see how they can be done better. You couldn't have paid me to hang around Peckinpah when he was alive, but I sure wish there was someone around who could still make 'em like this.
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