Sam Peckinpah is nearly always divisive in his filmmaking, but perhaps never more so than with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Unlike The Wild Bunch or Straw Dogs, Alfredo Garcia (or BMTHOAG, as it may be lovingly referred to) isn’t necessarily controversial because of the level of violence. While other Peckinpah films seem set as classics even in spite of their explicit scenes of brutal violence, most people just can’t decide whether Alfredo Garcia is any good or not.
The set-up comes in the wake of the proclamation that serves as the film’s title. Alfredo Garcia has impregnated a young girl, and her powerful father offers a million dollars to the man who delivers him from the neck up. Warren Oates plays Bennie, a piano player in a rundown bar who eventually becomes tangled up in the hunt for Garcia at the prospect of a large payoff. His girlfriend, played by Isela Vega, comes along for the ride – and needless to say there are vicious consequences. Soon the head of Alfredo Garcia is in Bennie’s possession, but a darker drive swells up within him and his plans change.
Why would people dislike Alfredo Garcia? For starters, the set pieces from the first half of the movie leave a lot to be desired. In fact, there aren’t very many set pieces at all between the initial “Bring me the head!” scene and a mid-movie altercation with two biker thugs. This altercation serves a) to begin to show a few cracks in the otherwise happy-go-lucky demeanor of Bennie (as Warren Oates brilliantly snarls “you two guys are definitely on my shit list”) and b) to show the promiscuity of Bennie’s girlfriend. Both of these revelations are compounded and built upon in later scenes, but during the scene in question the sense of urgency and pacing of Garcia seems lost.
Bennie eventually retrieves the head, but not before his girlfriend and a few others are met with death before his eyes. He finds the men who initially hired him to track Alfredo Garcia down, and he has the head ready for an exchange. The money, too, is ready – so what’s the problem? A mixture of pride and guilt causes Bennie to lash out and reach back from the edge of success here, murdering everyone in sight and launching a hunt for the man who gave the initial order for Garcia’s head. This ending, not unlike the scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained where Dr. King Schultz refuses to shake hands with Calvin Candie, can be a frustrating one. If Bennie had a better head on his shoulders, some may say, things wouldn’t have played out the way they did.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a movie in which nearly everyone dies, and they essentially die for nothing. Importantly, it is this senselessness which creeps into Bennie’s mind and causes the rampage of the final act – and boring as the set-up scenes may be when you’re enduring them, they certainly do provide Bennie with a heck of a character arc by the time the credits roll. Why him? Could anyone from that bar have been in his position? And what of the mere idea of a figure like this in the role of “protagonist”? Protagonists, usually, are ones to be rooted for, but Peckinpah continues with the theme of a questionable moral compass as established in such movies as The Getaway. If the film is worth watching at all (and I think it is), it’s for the deep portrayal of Bennie the musician and Peckinpah’s slow unfolding of the events that will define his life.
And besides, without Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia we’d be down one throwaway joke from Fletch:
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