Viking Night: Bonnie and Clyde
By Bruce Hall
October 25, 2011
The funny thing about being a nihilist is that the one thing you always end up missing is stability. It’s one of life’s general truths, but nowhere is it more applicable than the criminal arts. When you live without any rules, it’s that very lack of structure and discipline that usually does you in. As if to prove this, legendary gangsters Bonnie and Clyde saw their brief careers come to an end when they ran out of options and had to start looking for help - just another pair of fools who ran out of luck because they didn’t have a plan. And their story might have been forgotten by now, the same as every other bumbling, small time crook. But the idea of self-destructive, star crossed lovers is as old as the art of storytelling itself. It’s sheer coincidence that by the late '60s, a fatalistic new way of filmmaking was looking for a foothold in the US. It found purchase in the short, marginal lives of two incompetent thieves whose love would become as legendary as their lawlessness.
It’s hard to imagine today, but prior to Arthur Penn’s bloody-sexy spectacle, this depression era Romeo and Juliet had largely been lost in time. Clyde Barrow was a baby faced punk, perpetually in and out of jail by the time he was a teenager. Bonnie Parker was a bright but naive country girl who waited tables, all the while yearning for a life of intrigue and adventure. For both it was love at first sight, and Bonnie left home to join Clyde on his anarchist exploits. Neither was prepared for the wages of violence, treating their time on the road like an extended vacation. She wrote poetry and dabbled in photography. He threw money around like a sultan and indulged his Napoleon complex. Each grappled with their own childish ignorance, struggling to stay one step ahead of the law as the dragnet closed in. In a country wracked by economic collapse, some viewed them as heroes, fighting back against a corrupt system. In reality they were just a couple of dumb hicks, in way over their heads.
Unfortunately, life on the run wasn’t nearly as glamorous and fun as they expected, or as the newspapers often portrayed it. Bonnie and Clyde were pretty lousy bank robbers, so they lived hand to mouth, rarely sleeping in the same place for long. This, of course, made it harder to plan their escapades. And you know what they say about robbing banks - if you fail to plan, then plan to fail. And fail they did. So as their expenses outpaced their income, they became increasingly desperate - which forced them to reach out to relatives. And when the cops know you’re that desperate, they know to look for you in all those old familiar places. In this situation, it’s pretty much game over because no matter how you live your life, death is the one rule we all end up having to follow.
So why the history lesson, you’re probably asking? After all, I dropped out of college three times, and have no business trying to educate anyone. Just like Bonnie and Clyde, I should probably have a degree in futility. But the point is that these kids were more than just a couple of morons who thought they could outsmart death. They were a fascinating, modern day case study in Shakespearean violence, only their story lacked any semblance of romance or redemptive parable. And it made them the perfect candidate for a playfully lurid, viscerally potent crime drama. The film intentionally mimics the so called French New Wave style, which (in a nutshell) emphasizes visual excitement and gut level thrills, often over actual substance. That’s probably why the film takes some pretty massive liberties with historical fact. I would argue, however, that the primary function of a film like this is to entertain, not to teach. As with many period films, the revision actually clarifies the narrative. Unambiguous things are easier to sell, and the folly of youth is pretty unambiguous.