So, it’s not much of a film. It’s not actively terrible, because it’s not that hard to watch. But it surely isn’t good either. Sam Peckinpah doesn’t put much stock in character, plot, or dialogue at the best of times, and this one is just a strung together set of incidents. But it looks pretty.
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is one of the simplest westerns ever. There are some ranchers, and they want William Bonny gone. Pat Garrett, a former outlaw, signs on to become sheriff and rid New Mexico of the vexatious Billy. He warns him in the first scene, arrests him in the second, and Billy escapes in the third. Almost every scene winds up with someone getting shot. Indeed, characters are only introduced to be shot. When Dylan’s character, Alias, hooks up with Billy it is only after three other gunmen are gunned down (Dylan gets to throw a knife through one of their necks!). Who were they? What did they want? It doesn’t matter at all.
Dylan as an actor is, at best, fine. He has remarkably little screen presence in this. You get a sort of “Hey! That’s Bob Dylan” moment of excitement when he first shows up, but by the time James Coburn has him reading out the labels on canned food you have the sense that something has gone pretty much off track in this thing.
Dylan as a soundtrack artist is another thing entirely. The soundtrack plays much better on the screen than it does on CD, and Dylan lends the film some of its only memorable moments. Probably the best part of the film is when Slim Pickens’s gut shot sheriff goes off to die. We can’t truly care about the passing of this character, since he was only introduced about five minutes before he was shot and I honestly have no idea what his name was other than Slim Pickens Sheriff Guy, but the use of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” gives the scene sufficient heft that allows us to fill in enough blanks in the stereotype that Pickens plays so that we can feel something if we want to. The song then gets re-used when Billy shoots the deputy in front of his wife and kids, but just the refrain this time. What was more surprising to me was all the various versions of “Billy”. I had wrongly assumed that the ones on the soundtrack after the final theme were outtakes, but they show up here. But now that I think about it, I just watched the 2005 cut of this, so maybe they were outtakes in the 1973 version. If they were, the film would have been a lot worse.
Ultimately, this one is very much the product of its time and of Peckinpah’s severe limitations as a filmmaker. There’s hardly a woman in this who doesn’t get raped or slapped, and there’s a hardly a man who has even second dimension to his psychology. The ending drags on forever, and the villain is an unseen cattleman who’s never dealt with. Memo to filmmakers: just because your character sits around pensively after he’s shot someone, that’s not an adequate substitute for characterization and dialogue.
Essentially, it looks good. Peckinpah’s film are pretty as postcards, and this one has Kris Kristofferson (who should be forced to wear a beard at all times – this clean-shaven thing was freaking me out a bit) in it. Dylan rides a horse, and I wondered if he learned that just for the movie. I don’t think that I’m even going to remember much of this one in the morning other than the fact that it has two of the best songwriters of their generation dressed as cowboys and shooting rifles. If they’d thrown George Harrison in there they’d have really had something.