Picturing Justice, The On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Rob Waring
Rob Waring


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Had this been a more stereotypical western, their encounter with Mexican moonshine would have been set in a whorehouse ...






Today, there are approximately nine vigilante justice killings annually in Mexico.






Feature article

Killing Time with All the Pretty Horses
by Rob Waring

All the Pretty Horses, now out on video, is a film that may achieve minor cult status, as the comments of many who have seen it often include praise for its cinematography and editing, summed up as beautifully made. Not having read the novel on which it is based, I don't know the extent to which its underlying commentary on the criminal justice systems in Texas and Mexico is the work of the novel's author, Cormac McCarthy, screenwriter Ted Tally, or director Billy Bob Thornton. That may be difficult for anyone to determine, as the studio is reported to have chopped the director's cut from 220 minutes down to 116.

The film stars Matt Damon and his timid sidekick, played by Henry Thomas, formerly the kid sidekick of E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial. Damon's character loses the family farm upon the death of his grandfather, and the family lawyer, played by Sam Shepard, tells him there is no hope of recovery. Facing limited prospects in West Texas in 1949 and fleeing the injustices of Texas probate law, the duo head south to seek their fortunes in Mexico. There, they immediately find themselves caught up in the misfortunes of a juvenile runaway, whothree horsemen may have stolen his horse and gun North of the Border.Their first mistake is to get drunk with him. (Had this been a more stereotypical western, their encounter with Mexican moonshine would have been set in a whorehouse, but here it is good clean fun with a peasant family and their cute kids.) After a nearly electrifying scene, this possible reincarnation of Billy the Kid loses his purloined horse and gun, and then steals them back from a Mexican who assumed possession of what he may have thought was lost property. Regrettably, the Mexican pays for this mistake with his life. (The killer kid is played by Lucas Black, the kid who befriended killer Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade .)

I omit subsequent romantic plot details as irrelevant to this article (but spoiling other plot information for those who have yet to see the film),and noting that some of the romantic themes center on loyalty to one's dance family and friends - a subject recently explored in John Denvir's recent PJ article: No One Comes Out Clean in Traffic.  (And, also noting that the well publicized comments of Tomb Raider's Angela Jolie about the erotic imagination of her husband, Billy Bob Thornton, are only weakly validated in Pretty Horses (PG rated sex scenes between Damon and Penelope Cruz. But I digress.)

Damon, his sidekick and the killer kid all end up in a Mexican hoosegow, with no trial. Damon reassures the kid that he will be alright because Mexico does not have the death penalty. Minutes later, in screen time, the kid is dead, having been shot by the local police captain at the behest of the vengeful family of the deceased Mexican. The two Texans then end up in a Mexican prison,where both are nearly killed in separate knifings by a ruthless prison gang. Minutes later, in screen time, they are free men, their liberty having been purchased by a rich benefactor. Damon's character vows to seek extrajudicial restitution for the injustices endured by him and his friends. (The film subsequently makes one wonder if Robert Redford and Paul Newman had had hostages, whether Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would have had a different, happier ending.)

Damon eventually returns to his beloved Texas, immediately kissing the ground, now presumably free of the hazards of the Mexican justice system. Not in Texas more than two minutes, in screen time, he is arrested for suspected horse stealing.

Fortunately the judge at his arraignment is either kindly or bored or both. Played by Bruce Dern, he is so intrigued by the story of Damon's exploits that after seeing proof via scars from the bullet wound inflicted by Mexican sharpshooters, he dismisses the case. Never being the sort to miss an opportunity to say thank you for an act of kindness, Damon later goes to the judge's home to say howdy. The judge invites him in for philosophical chat (giving the plot some closure), harkening back to a simpler time when judges could do that sort of thing and not risk violating ethics canons.

The film begs the question: if you were going to commit murder in 1949 and wanted to avoid capital punishment, were you better off doing the deed in Texas or Mexico? (I don't mean to assume that any but a tiny fraction of murderers engage in this sort of calculus.) The answer could depend on who you were planning to kill. Statistics show that murderers in death penalty states in the United States receive the death penalty at least four times more frequently for killing a white person than for the killing of a member of a racial minority. Presumably this was even a higher ratio fifty years ago. On the other hand, in Mexico the lack of a death penalty apparently did not stop honor killings. (Today, there are approximately nine vigilante justice killings annually in Mexico). Perhaps the answer is that to avoid capital punishment in either country, one should avoid killing a person whose family or friends have political influence in the community. As noted above, the film also suggests that one might receive an acquittal in Texas if a plea for mercy is accompanied by a really entertaining explanation.

Posted August 4, 2001

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