Sam Peckinpah thinks the Old West offered men the last unambiguous set of values and is fascinated by attempts to hold fast to them in a world where they no longer mean anything. In his disjointed, confused and generally inept Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, he makes just two choices available to a pair of old friends: go down before the encroaching new order, or go to work for it at the cost of those unambiguous values. He sympathizes with Pat Garrett's instinct for survival in throwing in with the government, becoming a sheriff, and hunting down Billy the Kid; he admires Billy's refusal to run to Mexico and abandon his only true identity, that of an outlaw, but he believes in the inevitable spiritual death of the former and physical death of the latter….
Peckinpah is interested only in the reverberations of the past: He disdains the details of storytelling, characterization and acting style. He photographs every frame in a luscious way that cries out for consideration as visual mythology, but his inattention to anything that might make it such leaves his movie looking more like a lavish, coffee-table edition of a Classics Illustrated comic book.
He has occasionally tried to expand the parameters of his point of view through the folktale style of The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner, but his excesses in this genre are just as great as in his macho tributes to men of action. His idea of humor is a small piece of slapstick followed by loud guffaw, while wit is completely alien to the man.
Peckinpah has accumulated sympathy even from viewers who think, as I do, that his films are heavy-handed, clumsy and unstimulating. There is no question that he has often been the victim of studio mistreatment….
[The core of the drama in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid lies in Billy's] unexplained refusal to heed Garrett's … warning to go to Mexico, rather than force his old friend to hunt him down…. Garrett, the realist, and Billy, the romantic, act out the predictable scenario, minus the tragic overtones that would have made the film comprehensible, if not original. The only thing unpredictable is the endless digressions, the constant additions and subtractions … of people whose purpose in the film we discover only moments before their name is called up younder, if at all….
Apparently the deeper overtones of Garrett and the Kid's conflict didn't interest the director, who preferred to keep their problems and identities isolated and concentrated instead on the schematic progression to the inevitable shooting of the Kid. (p. 74)
In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, we never do know what Garrett wants and by the film's end his life appears to be a series of banal and automatic responses to banal and inevitable crises. Perhaps that automatic quality was supposed to be the source of the film's larger implications, with Peckinpah trying to suggest more by not explaining Garrett's character than he could have otherwise. If so, it just doesn't work. Neither does this very bad movie. (p. 75)
Jon Landau, "Roundin' Up the Hot New Westerns," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1973; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 138, July 5, 1973, pp. 74-5.∗