A French homage to the American Old West that comes at a time when it is unusual to see much Gallic enthusiasm expressed for the cowboy mentality, “Requiem for Billy the Kid” advances a curious parallel between the famous outlaw and the contemporaneous poet Arthur Rimbaud. At heart a meditation on the land and the character of men who settled the frontier — often violently — this idiosyncratic docu is too esoteric to find many berths beyond the tube, although it is seen to its best advantage by far on the bigscreen due to lovely widescreen lensing of Lincoln County, New Mexico, landscapes.
Pic is ultra-French from top to bottom, its character coming through in the frequent readings of verse by Rimbaud and Verlaine, the light accent of director/narrator Anne Feinsilber, and even a new version of Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” sung by musician Claire Diterzi in sexy hush-whispered style.
With Sam Peckinpah’s Billy, Kris Kristofferson, re-enlisted to portray the Kid delivering his account of what happened between him and Pat Garrett in 1881, pic goes on a photogenic search for the “truth” about the young killer. Seems there has always been a rumor that Billy escaped and lived to a ripe old age, and Tom Sullivan, who was sheriff of Lincoln County when pic was shot in the fall of 2004, describes his efforts to exhume the body of Billy’s mother for DNA, efforts shot down by a judge whose motives Sullivan describes as baldly financial.
Pic visits with other locals, whose leathery faces and distinctive vocal cadences are clearly relished by the filmmaker. She even has the mostly old gents stage a Hollywood studio tour-like re-enactment of the killing of store owner John Tunstall, which set off the Lincoln County War.
Poetic ruminations are given equal time, as Feinsilber builds the bond between Billy and Rimbaud by arguing that, while one used a gun, the other a quill, both ended their careers at 21, the outlaw by death and the poet by ceasing to write. OK.
Amplification of the Billy myth is illustrated in clips from Arthur Penn’s “The Left-Handed Gun” and Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid,” and Kristofferson and the latter’s scripter Rudy Wurlitzer appear on camera to essentially agree that, with age, one tends to move away from a romanticization of Billy’s “irresponsibility” to a position closer to Garrett’s “responsibility.”
At the same time, Wurlitzer laments how “the last free spirits of the ’60s were on the way out” when Peckinpah’s film was made, and that “There’s been sort of a slide to a Pat Garrett type society.” Ironically, pic’s final scene has outgoing Sheriff Sullivan commenting on the victory of George W. Bush on the morning after the see-saw November 2004 election.