Seattle Courant Archive

Failed State... of Mind

Failed State... of Mind

By Jason McBride
April 19, 2009

Sam Peckinpah’s 1974 film “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” shows what happens when you go the other way and neglect everything except a crooked dream of cash and revenge.

Warren Oates plays Bennie, an American expat who runs a sleazy piano bar in Mexico. One night, two contract killers crash Bennie’s club in search of Alfredo Garcia, an anonymous man who has impregnated the daughter of a dishonored patriarch. Bennie sees an opportunity. Not only does he want the reward money, but to eliminate his rival; Alfredo has been sleeping with his on-again-off-again prostitute-girlfriend Elita.

Fueled by greed, jealousy and Cuervo, Bennie takes along the reluctant Elita (Isela Vega), who has revealed to Bennie that her other lover is dead, to harvest the head of Alfredo Garcia from the grave and collect the reward.

What makes this film so great is this primal, basic starting point: “bring me a head.” Then there’s Oates. With his crooked teeth, awkward gait and cheap seersucker suit with clip-on tie, Warren Oates is the Humphrey Bogart of the seventies malaise. Instead of a custom sports car, he heads into action in a dirty, dented red Impala. Although he brandishes a pistol and guzzles an ever-present bottle of Tequila, his real weapon is luck, and in dwindling supply. His employers are out to double-cross him, and Elita’s morals stand in the way of his grave-robbing mission.

Director Sam Peckinpah was a notorious alcoholic who went out of his way to show the world his tough side. Most of the 15 films he made before his death in 1984 were violent, chauvinistic and nihilistic. “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” is all of these things, but only a fool would allow political correctness to get in the way of enjoying this masterpiece. Oates and Vega share a natural chemistry that is tender yet complex. Elita wants to marry Bennie, yet her actions and occupation call her loyalty into question. Bennie hates Alfredo for sleeping with Elita, yet he is willing to risk their love for money.

With his slow-motion shoot-out sequences (a technique that has influenced action directors as far off as Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo), Peckinpah seems to revel in violence. Instead of merely penetrating flesh, bullets propel bodies though the air. But there is no glory in Bennie’s mission, as corpses only lead to more corpses in a mission that finds no satisfying conclusion. His white wrinkled suit only gets dirtier and bloodier, his focus only more obsessive and suicidal.

Like many gut-toting movie heroes, Bennie provides a source of vicarious satisfaction. If you run into a problem, shoot it. But this doesn’t lead to a good place, which is what makes Peckinpah’s action movies more honest than most, where dead bodies result in a happy ending for the hero and his family. “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” truly depicts the costs of violent obsession. Bennie neglects everything but death.

Maybe we’re better off folding laundry and doing taxes.

“Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”
Sam Peckinpah
Isela Vega

PHOTO CAPTION Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)