By: Luke Parker, Columnist
Featured image courtesy of Vox
A farmer comes across Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) soon after they’ve begun jogging and not too long before they’ll start running from the law. Bonnie has been using the tire swing behind the farmer’s house for target practice, except the house doesn’t belong to the farmer anymore; he and his family have been tossed out by the bank; a large wooden sign out front acts as a bureaucratic exclamation point. Clyde decides he’ll use bullets to add three more dots to that point, and in offering the gun to the farmer, captures the mood of “Bonnie and Clyde” perfectly. Later on, the couple will rob a bank and make sure to only take the bank’s money. “They did right by me,” one of the unrobbed patrons says posing for a picture, “and I’m bringin’ me and a mess of flowers to their funeral.”
These scenes embody two basic characteristics that run rampant throughout “Bonnie and Clyde:” poetry and tragedy. The film as a whole is very funny and also very violent. Associating those two words with one another may seem strange, but released in the height of the non-conformity, counter-culture movements, the poetry comes from the recklessness and appeal behind its youthful anti-heroes, and the tragedy from their inevitable demise.
Critic Patrick Goldstein called “Bonnie and Clyde” “the first modern American film.” With so many others from the last 50 years using its mold, such as “Natural Born Killers” and “Thelma and Louise,” it’s difficult to imagine how audiences felt leaving theaters in 1967. Director Arthur Penn and writer Robert Benton made bonding with violence easier than it had ever been, adding glamour and context to every aspect of two lives which, in real life, ended several others. The law-breaking folk hero has been a consistent cinematic character ever since.
The film starts and ends with Bonnie and Clyde’s time together. Mere sentences sum up their lives before she catches him trying to steal her mother’s car, and mere seconds separate their deaths from the credits. In between are the various vicious arguments, gun battles and robberies that have since defined legends. And legends they were: in the film, people take pictures with a bullet hole from Clyde’s gun, but in the real world, people paid to see their corpses.
The one thing that stays consistent throughout the film is the one thing the couple probably did better than stealing: running away. At first, Bonnie instantly sees Clyde as her escape from a boring Texas town, but the rest of the film is spent with the two fleeing from the law. “Bonnie and Clyde” has a lingering horror over it in that its characters know they are doomed, but are unable to cope with it.
There is one scene in which the gang – now featuring a mechanic (Michael J. Pollard), Clyde’s brother (Gene Hackman) and his irritating wife (Estelle Parsons) – have some fun by taking the eccentric Eugene Grizzard (Gene Wilder in his first big screen role) for a ride. It’s hilarious, the basis for Wilder’s upcoming career with nervous characters is created and everyone, Eugene included, has a good time. That is until it takes a dark turn once Bonnie finds out he is an undertaker and kicks him out of the car. Another beautiful and blunt scene with her mother takes place soon after and serves as their final insight.
When time does run out for Bonnie and Clyde, it is one of the most shocking, brutal and memorable death scenes in cinematic history. What’s perhaps most unnerving, as the prolonged bullets tag and toss each lifeless body over and over, is that it is probably much closer to the truth than we’d like to think. If anything, “Bonnie and Clyde” was revolutionary in that it was a film as violent as humans.