The title is grim. The movie is grimmer. Sam Peckinpah never shied away from portraying existence as an exercise in futility, sometimes glorious but more often ridiculous or worse. He made movies in which only a shifty sense of honor separated the good guys from the bad guys. Even when distrust of civilization wasn't his films' central thesis, it always lurked at the margins. With Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, he went even further, burrowing for a dark nugget of purity somewhere in the corruption of the soul. Garcia channels the biblical book of Ecclesiastes: All is vanity, except maybe there's something that isn't.
The film opens in rural Mexico, where a jefe uses threats, then violence, to force his daughter into revealing the name of the man who left her pregnant; once he has a name, he promises a million-dollar reward for, yes, the head of Alfredo Garcia. Elsewhere, in a Mexico City tourist bar that barely masks its double life as a brothel, displaced gringo Warren Oates serves drinks and entertains the guests. There, as Oates taps out a melody beneath a mocking caricature of Nixon, two well-groomed Americans (Gig Young and Robert Webber) command Oates to kill Alfredo for a fraction of the reward money. The connection isn't particularly subtle—clean, corrupt hands outsourcing the dirty work to increasingly desperate characters—but Garcia displaces the subtlety from its simple revenge-film plot to its beautifully realized protagonists. Soon, guns blaze and bodies fall in slow motion, but the half-muttered profundities make as deep an impression as the bloodshed.
Oates has an angle: His on-again/off-again prostitute girlfriend Isela Vega knows that Alfredo—an old boyfriend, as it happens—is already dead, meaning the mission should be a simple retrieval exercise. Recruiting Vega for a kind of working vacation, the pair hit the road, cruising the countryside while drawing from a bottomless bottle of Jose Cuervo. When they get to their destination, they find, of course, that the task isn't as simple as they imagined, but the film doesn't hinge on this relatively late development. It's as much about the journey and the tequila-soaked realizations made along the way, and the two leads play it beautifully, with the grimy thriller trappings accenting their uneasy romance. While Oates grapples with his feelings for Vega and their dead target's hold on her emotions, encounters with a would-be rapist (played with creepy tenderness by Kris Kristofferson), judgmental hotel clerks, and others force him to recognize that she might be his last shot at a redeemed life.
It's a peculiar kind of redemption, however, shot through with Peckinpah's discomforting—and sometimes simply hateful—feelings for humanity in general and women in particular. But the honesty behind Garcia's queasiest moments gives the film its pull. It was made as Peckinpah entered his final decade of alcoholic decline, and though he later directed other films, it has the feel of a valedictory work, a last chance for the artist to grapple with the big issues on his own terms. When Oates eventually picks up another traveling companion, Garcia turns—as one of the three Peckinpah experts on the lively commentary track observes—into an extended riff on Hamlet's chat with Yorick. Flesh inevitably gives way to flyspecked rot and bone, but by the film's reckoning, all events have meaning, even if it has to be discovered in a hail of bullets.