Bonnie and Clyde

3 out of 5

Directed by: Arthur Penn

I’ve watched my fair share of “before my time” movies, and I would like to believe I’ve developed an appropriate filter for setting my expectations appropriately: having a sense of the type of cultural awareness and values to expect; understanding budget or technological limitations of the time.  And what I’ve often found – much to the pleasure of any film fan who’s likely discovered the same – is that great movies are timeless.  ‘Great’ is a relative scale, of course, but you can tell ‘popcorn’ movies of any given era; you can tell great performances, or when the passion of the project infiltrates to a deeper level.  Another point of view on that is that you can then also get a sense of when a movie possibly made an impact moreso relevant to its time than because of inherent quality… which is a criticism I’m going to level at Bonnie and Clyde.

Noted for its onscreen bloodshed and its French New Wave influence – which had it initially shopped around to Truffaut and the like – the flick undoubtedly offers a great performance from Warren Beatty and moments of the same from Faye Dunaway (as Clyde and Bonnie, respectively), but it very much comes across as a lightweight biographical affair, sprinkling in reaction shots to imply there’s some character psychology at work and taking quite a summary tour of their careers as part of the Barrow Gang, to the extent that it rather ineffectively communicates whether or not they were effective, or dangerous, or bumbling, or innocents.  While that tonal ambivalence is part of the New Wave influence – cueing podunk banjo music to score their getaways before a bloody shootout – it comes across as more incidental than purposeful.  The movie feels like ideas about Bonnie and Clyde (and Clyde’s brother (played by Gene Hackman), and his wife, and a composite character of their real-life associates) as a opposed to an actual movie with actual characters.

As such, motivations are espoused, but not really otherwise present.  A need to get away; to make their mark: when Dunaway is caught up in a moment, she’s enthralling, but the cutaways to plot points – having to go see her family at one point – don’t exactly sync up.  And Beatty is awful charming, but there’s a pointless, half-assed attempt at exploring the character’s sexuality and a lack of clarity on how we’re to feel regarding his occasional bouts of violence…

Which brings us back around to the ‘cultural relevance’ of the movie.  That it even included some considerations of sexuality, and that it moved beyond cops and robbers glamorization to gunfights with legitimate stakes and bloodshed, was important at the time.  And because the movie was inducting or encouraging that change, there’s a stiffness to how it’s done, i.e. it often feels like it’s only to prove a point, and not necessarily integral to the actual flick itself.  So setting that aside, and focusing on said flick, some exciting sequences and clever juxtapositions (and an admittedly effective conclusion) never quite sync up with the somewhat shallow characterizations to make Bonnie and Clyde much deeper than standard Hollywood fare, but the excitement of shooting something that, at the time, was edgy, gives the film a nervy energy that’s buoyed by splashes of great acting.