In a September, 2007 interview with journalist John Anderson, David Cronenberg had this to say about the depiction of violence in his films:
I’m an atheist and don’t believe in an afterlife; about my understanding of the human body and how it is the first fact of human existence. That if you kill someone, it is an act of absolute destruction. There is no heaven; I think you can rationalize killing someone if you think they’re going to an afterlife or are going to karmically recycle. I’m saying no, you’d better take it more seriously than that. That’s why in Eastern Promises—and there are only three scenes of violence in it—I insist on the physical reality of this destruction. It’s hard to take, but I think you let the audience off the hook if they get to enjoy the action, but they don’t have to notice the blood. That’s my take on it—which sometimes gets mistaken for “Cronenberg is a gore hound.”
I recalled a paraphrased version of this quote shortly after seeing Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), because Cronenberg offers such a fascinating counterpoint to the cavalier attitude many filmmakers and viewers alike often take towards onscreen violence, and although there are obvious differences between how each of these directors renders bloodshed, they share a pronounced consciousness of its impact. As is the mode with Peckinpah’s films, Alfredo Garcia boasts a high body count, and yet it refuses to shrug off the violence as incidental of its action movie pedigree.
Alfredo Garcia follows Bennie (Warren Oates) as he endeavors to find and deliver the title head to El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez), who wants it as proof that revenge has been enacted against the gigolo who impregnated his daughter. The head will net him a handsome reward, but he must convince his girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega)—who knew Alfredo in an intimate capacity that isn’t fully divulged—that it’s worth involving the two of them with murderous criminals and desecrating Alfredo’s grave (he died in a car wreck before any head-hunters could get to him).
On paper, Bennie sounds like a standard action movie hero: hard-living, fiercely independent, aggressive with a weapon and even more so with a woman. But as directed by Peckinpah and embodied by Oates, Bennie bears a vulnerability that radiates from beneath a pair of sunglasses that he even wears to bed. Peckinpah doesn’t provide a lot of information about his protagonist: he claims to have been playing piano at a bar for the past six years, while his skill with a gun and willingness to become embroiled in a shady, definitely life-or-death scenario suggest quite the sordid past. These obscurities befit someone who kills with the impunity of James Bond or Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, but Bennie doesn’t exhibit the same detachment. Every dead body carries meaning. Even as he argues against Elita’s reservations about unearthing Alfredo, saying, “There’s nothin’ sacred about a hole in the ground or a man that’s in it,” his voice betrays an intense discomfort with the whole affair, as if he would rather not think about the lengths he’ll go to in procuring his fortune.
Later, while presenting El Jefe with the head, Bennie notes that “sixteen men are dead because of you, me and him,” an acknowledgement that contradicts the impersonality inherent in the term “body count.” (Curiously, marketing for the film also touts this mindfulness, as its trailer’s voice-over intones, “Twenty-five people will die,” and a poster reads, “Why is his head worth one million dollars and the lives of 21 people?”) Sure, Bennie isn’t lighting candles for the fallen, but how often do anonymous baddies get even a passing mention? Of course, this appreciation of death wouldn’t mean much if Bennie wasn’t so obviously harried by his actions. In his first scene, Oates portrays Bennie as an easy-going, amiable guy, then spends the rest of the film hacking away at this initial representation, to the point where he appears mentally unsound as he holds one-sided conversations with the head resting on the passenger seat.
The impetus behind Bennie’s rapid slide towards drunken derangement comes about two-thirds into the film, and I would have misgivings about spoiling it (although I realize I’m posting this on a blog with little to no readership). Suffice it to say that following this development the film becomes leaner and more immediately satisfying, largely because the necessity of Bennie’s mission, which has already been questioned repeatedly, is thrown even deeper into doubt. What’s more, he knows it. Take, for instance, the scene in which one of Alfredo’s relatives demands to know whether Bennie robbed the grave solely for money. He responds defensively with, “No!” but quickly changes his answer to a dejected “Si.” There’s a lot of shame in that one syllable. The typical action hero presses onward with unflinching conviction, and even if his motives are lacking in altruism, he has long since made peace with that fact. Bennie, however, must constantly confront his reasons for mowing down human beings for possession of a corpse’s head, and those reasons prove to resist easy acceptance.
The question isn’t whether Bennie has the ability to best his enemies in a gun battle; he is machine-like in his shooting. But when he does finally collect his cash-filled suitcase, will it really offer the peace of mind he has ascribed to it? Or will he ultimately be no better off than if he’d taken a bullet to the chest? Bennie may purport to think little of the dead, but when the last shots have been fired, his only friend is the severed head in the passengers’ seat.