Friday, September 6, 2013

Scene-A-Day: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

    Knockin' on heaven's door.

      For my money, the finest scene ever shot for a motion picture arrives in Sam Peckinpah's seminal Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid - the "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" scene, where Slim Pickens' character dies. Explaining just what makes the scene so beautiful and poetic is kind of hard to put into words, but I'll give it a go anyway.

   First, a little set-up: James Coburn's Pat Garrett is hot on the trail of the outlaw Billy the Kid, and teams up with an aging sheriff and his wife, played by Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado, to confront an old gang of the Kid's in hopes of finding out whatever information they can. The scene plays out much as you would expect of a western, no less a Peckinpah movie, as both sides immediately pull their guns and get to shooting, the spectacular violence and trademark Peckinpah slow-motion in full effect. But then, much like the rest of the movie, the gunshots peter out, and the film takes a soulful turn - switching from violence to elegance, before you even notice the change. Having been shot twice and near death, Slim Pickens gets up and walks over to this small trickle of a river, in a scene that many a Hollywood screenwriter and film editor will tell you to cut immediately, but that is so weird and distinct and against natural logic it just feels all the more authentic and true.

    You see, earlier in the film we see Slim Pickens' character building a boat out in the middle of his desert town, hoping to one day retire and get away from the arid landscape that's trapped him all his life, with dreams of setting sail to the open sea. He never gets to finish that boat, but it turns out he doesn't have to. Dying there at the bed of the river, he looks up and sees his wife, who's crying and at the same time giving this strange, happy smile. He turns back to look at the water gathered before him, and everything clicks into place - he never needed to go out in that boat to make his dreams come true. Everything he ever wanted or needed was right there in front of him all along, just like the river is now as he's dying. Just like his wife, sitting there with tears of joy as they both come to this realization. No words pass between them - the only audio on the soundtrack fading away for one of Bob Dylan's best songs - and it's all there on Jurado and Pickens' faces, in performances so nakedly honest it's hard to see how it could even be construed as "acting." 

    It's a scene that is at once completely separate from the film it's surrounded by and yet still intrinsically tied to. It's a perfect piece of the thematic whole that makes up Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid's treatise on life and death and growing old. It's a scene that conveys its meaning entirely through the images, through the direction and the acting and the framing of the shots. It is visual storytelling at its finest.

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