Warren Oates, in a career best performance, unravels magnificently down Mexico way in Peckinpah's criminally underrated nouveau gothic masterpiece. This film is gradually coming into it's own, initially marginalised in the scheme of the director's work it is now reappraised as one of his major achievements. Weird romanticism, shattering violence, morbid subject matter, all combine to make it a unique cinematic experience. The obvious signpost to the progressively nihilistic tone of the movie is given earlier on when Gig Young is asked for his name by Bennie (Warren Oates). He replies "Dobbs. Fred C. Dobbs." The name is that of the Humphrey Bogart character in John Huston's classic "The Treasure of The Sierra Madre." Bogart's character was driven mad by greed in that movie, in his futile search for an elusive treasure. Peckinpah's vision encompasses many of the same themes, yet is far darker. As Oates' character spirals into psychosis during his journey through the searing and filthy Mexican badlands, he maintains a fractured, rambling dialogue with the decaying, severed head of Alfredo and coldly guns down those who get in his way.
Bennie is a loser, a pianist in a dead end bar, cuckolded by the woman he loves who got it on with Alfredo (a friend of Bennie's), broke and living in squalor, he perceives obtaining the severed head of his dead friend as a way out. This is his "golden fleece," a passport to a better life. In the process of digging up the body, his girl is murdered and Bennie's personality disintegrates. As he pumps bullet after bullet into the corpse of one of the hoods who whacked his chick, he spits: "Why? Because it feels so damn good!" The role is one that Warren Oates was made for. Seldom a leading man in Hollywood, his history of character parts provide him with the experience needed to invest Bennie with the complex traits of a complete anti-hero. Each tic, each mannerism, the almost improvised quality of his dialogue delivery, results in a totally believable performance.
Although many believe that Peckinpah's direction here is "messy and unfocussed" on reflection it seems more of a deliberate ploy to accentuate the nightmarish quality of the narrative. Bennie swigs Tequila almost constantly throughout the movie, and very often - combined with the obligatory slow motion violence and gunplay - the result is as if the audience is viewing the action through the languorous gaze of a drunk. Or maybe that's just my imagination running away with me. Or my own alcohol intake.
This is probably Peckinpah's most personal film, and his last masterpiece, and as such is one of the most original pieces of mainstream cinema ever produced. If you like Tarantino and Rodriguez, this movie will give a sense of where some of their roots are. Ultimately, a journey into the heart of darkness that makes Apocalypse Now seem like a paddle through Disneyland.
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