French filmmaker Anne Feinsilber began thinking about Billy the Kid when she read a New York Times article about the controversies surrounding his death and the efforts to exhume his corpse for DNA sampling.
Her documentary looks not only at that inter-jurisdictional tug of war and the people involved, but it also examines the myth of Billy, his history, the land that claims him and other films about him.
Feinsilber talks with folks in Lincoln County, New Mexico, and spends time with a few of the local good old boys who recount the stories they learned from their pappies and grand pappies.
She enlists Kris Kristofferson and his dusty growl to share the narration. She also intercuts her footage with clips and scenes from Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and The Left Handed Gun (1958), which starred Paul Newman.
In the middle of this part travelogue, part historical analysis and part simple observation documentary, Feinsilber forges a transcontinental bond between bad boy French poet Arthur Rimbaud and Billy, who were four years apart in age at the time, and who both ended their careers at 21.
William Bonney came to an abrupt end at the hands of his friend Pat Garrett, whereas Rimbaud simply stopped writing poetry but went on to live a colorful life before dying at 37.
Still, Billy and Arthur were both outlaws of a sort, and they both had a profound influence on subsequent generations of bad boys like Bob Dylan, who appeared with Kristofferson in Peckinpah’s movie.
The movie looks wonderful. Shot in 35mm, it allows Feinsilber some broad panoramic shots of the New Mexican countryside and the people of Lincoln County, who talk, dress and act like the multigenerational cowpokes, ranchers and law enforcement officers that they are.
Whatever points Feinsilber is making, if any, are diffused by the nature of the subjects and the scope of the land, and all of that works to the film’s advantage, which may be the point after all. Requiem for Billy the Kid is an artful documentary and a very nice piece of work by a complete outsider with great instincts and a first-rate eye.