Intimate Spaces, Brutal Landscapes

Aharon Keshales on how Sam Peckinpah influenced his new action drama, South of Heaven, starring Jason Sudeikis and Evangeline Lilly.

When I started working on my new feature, South of Heaven, I immersed myself in the cinema of Sam Peckinpah. I have watched and rewatched every single one of his movies, because for me Peckinpah always represented a different approach to genre filmmaking. He made films that were obsessed with time and the way time always catches up with you. His heroes were dinosaurs on the verge of extinction and his romantic couples were always trying to make up for lost time.

South of Heaven has a lot in common with Peckinpah’s themes and his obsession with time. It’s a film about a man who’s released from prison after 12 years and tries to give the love of his life, now dying from lung cancer, the best year of her life. The best last year of her life.

Sculpting with time within the boundaries of a well-established genre is no easy task. As we all know, genre filmmaking demands precision and discipline. Especially if you’re making an action-adventure film or a suspense thriller. These movies are expected to be a lean, mean popcorn machine. A clockwork orange.

Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen in The Getaway.

If you do find a love scene or a moment where the hero or heroine is entertaining an existential thought in an action film, it usually serves as a signifier: “Look here, your protagonist has a mind and a soul.” These moments are rarely deep and almost never poetic. Unless you’re watching A Sam Peckinpah Film.

Peckinpah, aka Bloody Sam, was mostly celebrated as the filmmaker who gave birth to a new era of cinematic violence. His films often included brutal shootouts depicted in slow motion. A ballet of bloodletting. But, for me, Peckinpah was more than the master of savage cinema. His best works tried to achieve the impossible balance between the physical and the emotional, between the violent, vast landscapes of the American West and the intimate spaces his haunted characters shared with each other.

Look at the way he directs the reunion between Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw in The Getaway. It’s the opposite of what you see in most getting-out-of-prison films. It’s sad, it’s quiet, there’s a sense of shame and even guilt. As a result, it feels honest. Peckinpah makes us stare at these characters as they stare at each other. He creates a special, intimate space that transcends genre expectations. It is as if he’s looking for poetry in moments that are usually dominated by the generic and clichés.

Evangeline Lilly and Jason Sudeikis in South of Heaven.

The bedroom scene between Jimmy Ray (Jason Sudeikis) and Annie (Evangeline Lilly) in South of Heaven was written with that unforgettable sequence from The Getaway in mind.

Peckinpah’s unusual approach becomes even clearer when we look at his less successful movies, his wounded cinematic birds, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

One of the most beautiful and heartbreaking moments in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid happens during a shootout between Pat Garret and Billy’s old gang, when one of Garrett’s people, Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens), is shot in the gut. Instead of just letting him drop dead right there and then, Peckinpah follows Sheriff Baker as he walks towards the river and sits down by the water. Then we see his Mexican wife (Katy Jurado) following him, looking at him with tears in her eyes. There’s no dialogue, only naked feelings accompanied by the haunting lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

This scene always brings me to tears. I think it’s the most mesmerizing death scene to be captured on film. The agony, the sorrow, the fear and, eventually, the acceptance of death are all present in this very short scene. Life is fleeting – a visual realization.

There is a scene in the last act of South of Heaven in which two people are staring at each other at the end of a bloody shootout and time just freezes. An unlikely, intimate space has been created for these two opposing characters.

In Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah sends the viewer in an opposite direction. On their voyage to bring the head of Alfredo Garcia to its vengeful future owner, unlikely couple Bennie (Warren Oates) and Elita (Isela Vega) make a stop. Elita is nestled in Bennie’s loving arms. It is one of Peckinpah’s most intimate love scenes. Just two people sitting by a tree. Talking. She wants to go back in time and revisit a 16th-century Spanish city with Bennie, but he wants to live a better future and thinks he finally has the ticket. Elita asks him why he never proposed to her. Bennie doesn’t know the reason, but he is willing to do so now. She asks him to propose to her, right then and there. He asks her to marry him and she breaks into tears. He hugs her. We know death surrounds this couple, just as it did in The Getaway and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, yet Peckinpah freezes this moment and creates another intimate space you don’t usually get to see in action thrillers.

Warren Oates and Isela Vega in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

One of my favorite scenes in South of Heaven pays homage to this wonderful moment from Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Jimmy and Annie are sitting on a bench and Annie is asking Jimmy to help her find her funeral song. She picks “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys. She starts singing, but Jimmy isn’t joining her. Then he starts to sing and one of the lines in the song sends an arrow through Annie’s heart. She breaks down and starts to cry. He comforts her. She laughs. They kiss. In this moment of intimacy and deep connection, the audience knows time is ticking and that death is knocking on their door.

Aharon Keshales‘ new film, the action drama South of Heaven, starring Jason Sudeikis and Evangeline Lilly, is out now in theaters, on VOD and on digital through RLJE Films. Keshales was a film critic and a lecturer at the Tel Aviv University before he co-wrote and co-directed his
first feature, Rabies, in 2010. Rabies (aka Kalevet) was Israel’s first horror film and it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. In 2013, Keshales co-wrote and co-directed Big Bad Wolves. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and won the Saturn Award for Best International Film. The film was also named “The best film of 2013” by Quentin Tarantino.