Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is the strangest film of Sam Peckinpah's career, and also the most misunderstood. It flopped at the box office when it first arrived in theatres, earning scorn from most prominent film critics (Roger Ebert was one of the film's few champions) and eventually even landing a spot in Harry and Michael Medved's The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. Still, the movie has risen in stature over the years, as new generations of cinephiles have begun to recognize the movie as perhaps the purest distillation of Peckinpah's unique voice.
The film centers on Bennie (Warren Oates, The Wild Bunch), a retired U.S. Army Officer who now works as a piano player and saloon manager in Mexico City. One day, Bennie encounters a pair of well-dressed Americans who are looking for a man named Alfredo Garcia. It seems this Garcia impregnated the daughter of a wealthy Mexican crime lord, and now has a large bounty on his head. Bennie pays a visit to Garcia's girlfriend – a prostitute named Elita (Isela Vega, The Yellow Rose) – and learns that Garcia died in a car accident a few days earlier. Recognizing an opportunity to make a little money and improve his status in life, Bennie strikes a deal with the Americans: $10,000 in exchange for Alfredo Garcia's head.
The task seems easy enough: join Elita on a road trip to visit Garcia's grave, dig up the body, retrieve the head and collect the money. Alas, this is a Peckinpah movie, so it won't be quite that simple. The journey is filled with betrayals, violent encounters and unexpected moments of emotional conflict, slowly evolving from a simple mission into a fight for survival into a bizarre journey of soul-searching. By the third act, our sweaty, tortured hero is engaging in moody conversations with Garcia's head, and Peckinpah begins doubling down on the sort of blunt, pitiless, no-holds-barred violence that defines much of his filmography.
Peckinpah's movies felt increasingly ramshackle as his career progressed (undoubtedly a result of his increasing alcoholism), and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia often feels so loose and thrown-together that you feel as if it's going to go spinning out of control at any moment. Somehow, that only adds to the film's power, as the movie itself seems to mirror the emotional volatility and dazed confusion of its protagonist. The film doesn't so much end as fling itself desperately at the finish line; it feels as if the filmmaker is throwing the last ounce of his creative energy into the closing moments.
There's plenty of bloodshed (particularly once the film gets going), but there are also more than a few intimate moments. There's one particularly touching passage in which Bennie and Elina share a picnic lunch and end up realizing that they're deeply in love with each other: it sounds corny, but Oates seems so genuinely surprised by the discovery that it works beautifully. Later, there's a startling rape sequence infused with a heartbreaking sense of resignation: there are no screams or tears, because Elina has experienced this often enough to feel she'll be better off simply accepting it and moving on. But then the scene turns into something else, and we're reminded of one of the more unnerving moments in Peckinpah's Straw Dogs.
Oates delivers one of the best performances of his career, successfully capturing Bennie's journey from eager opportunism to broken rage. Bennie is a man who always seems to be trying to justify something to himself, and Oates skillfully permits us to see the character's increasing inability to ignore what his heart is telling him. At times, he seems to be a stand-in for Peckinpah: a man determined to see his task through to the end despite the fact that it's clearly breaking him.
Peckinpah would keep directing movies for another decade or so, but he was never the same after Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. He stopped writing his own screenplays and became a mere hired gun; putting his fading skills to use in the service of conventional entertainments. Almost every movie Peckinpah made was subjected to some form of studio interference, but he somehow managed to make Alfredo Garcia precisely the way he wanted to make it. It's a clear window into the director's weary soul, and a heartbreaking portrait of a man learning some important lessons after they can no longer do him any good.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Year: 1974