This review, my first in over six months (the longest gap since Lost in the Movies began in 2008), is an entry in the Wonders in the Dark western countdown, where the 1973 Sam Peckinpah picture was voted #30. The piece has been cross-posted on Wonders, and you can visit that site for more comments and discussion.
Movies are motifs and moments as well as stories - individual, isolated campfires flickering in the desert dusk and not just landscapes strung together by a stretch of lonesome road. Perhaps Westerns more than most other narrative films rely on this identification with details rather than plot development. Indeed, often the plots exist as clotheslines over which to string the details: the kids playing in the dirt staring up in awe at the outlaws riding nonchalantly through town, the bedroom sequence in which a lonely drifter becomes loquacious with a local whole, the banter over whisky at the bar (nobody drinks beer in saloons, it seems). Audiences go to Westerns - or went to Westerns when they were more popular - less to experience surprise twists and turns in a novelistic story than to gaze with affection and curiosity at a portrait of a time and place both familiar and foreign.
"Revisionist" directors like Sam Peckinpah may have upset and upturned conventions, but they also honored and expanded upon those conventions in the first place. Watching films like The Wild Bunch today, their once-groundbreaking violence no longer shocks; one is struck instead by the ways in which they feel nostalgic or old-fashioned. They exude a sense of affectionate camaraderie which one seldom finds outside of buddy comedies (albeit sans stoicism) in 2013. Perhaps no Western more acutely captures the passage from warm if rough camaraderie into brooding, suspicious isolation than Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973). Even stylistically, the film - particularly when comparing its various incarnations (three have been released over the years) - is torn between a sense of long, lingering (perhaps excessive) attention to detail and a relentless march toward an inevitable outcome.