AFInity: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
By Kim Hollis
August 6, 2009
I realize that this plot description makes the movie sound slight. It could have been, but the writing (by William Goldman) is so fine, and the acting so layered, that it leaves the viewer with ideas to ponder and characters that we hate to leave behind. Sure, it's taking the notions of the standard Western and turning them a little bit upside down. Gone is the ultra-violence of Peckinpah and Leone. Traditional notions of good guy/bad guy are up in smoke. Even the music lets us know that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid intends to reframe the genre to something new and all its own.
What that means is that the kind of guys we might typically see as the heroes become the shadowy, threatening men-without-faces who are in hot pursuit of the outlaws, who in turn are the guys we've been trained to root against. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, though, we're absorbed in the chaos created by the outlaw protagonists. It's a lot more fun to watch guys like them having a blast as they relieve others of their wealth than it would be to focus on the upstanding citizens charged with their pursuit.
And yet, even with all the fun, there's an underlying sense of melancholy. We get the sense that Butch and Sundance are relics of an era and that this is something they understand. Their time is coming to an end, and at some point they'll fade away. They won't go down easy or without a fight, but there's an inevitability about where their story is headed that cannot be denied.
The primary reason this comes across so clearly is because the characters are so well-written, but one also feels that the actors' interpretation of their roles is crucial. It would have been easy to make Butch the brilliant schemer, planning all their jobs with efficiency and perfect cunning. Sundance could have been the irresistible brooder. Instead, we are given characters with a much greater depth. The opening scene alone does an amazing job of telling us who these two men are – Butch is the problem solver and the guy who does the talking, while Sundance has a certain personal code that he follows even as he exists amongst the wrong element. We learn that Butch is blithe and ne'er-do-well, and Sundance is the ideal counterpart who precisely assesses the room before taking action.
The characters grow as the movie progresses. We come to see that even though Butch has a knack for planning and knows a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff, he's not infallible. His schemes sometimes go wrong. And Sundance, despite a tough exterior, has fears and worries that are surprising. The viewer is given the sense that the two friends have seen better times – that at one point, robbing banks was child's play for them, but as times are changing, they're being forced to adapt, which isn't coming easy or naturally to them.
I'm always inclined to like Newman in everything (I seriously can't recall a time that I wasn't enchanted by him in a film), and Butch Cassidy gives me that much more reason to regard him as one of the finest actors ever. I would have thought that Redford might be better suited to play Butch Cassidy, but his take on Sundance is just right. He does the slow burn really, really well and has a caustic air about him, but never takes it too far. We have to believe that these guys would stay buddies through a lot of harrowing stuff, and they do indeed feel like old friends. We don't often talk about chemistry between male leads, but it's significant here.