Bonnie and Clyde is a messy film, in more ways than one. Arthur Penn’s game-changing juggernaut found itself at the head of the New Hollywood table in 1967, and with its ideas of disaffected youth, its explicitness in violence and frankness in sex, it has persisted with a true fondness. However watching it in 2016 one can’t help but wonder if the fondness with which it has endured results more from its countercultural battle cry and the stylistic paradigm shift it inspired rather than its merit purely as a story.
Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway play the violent and spontaneous duo as they shoot up the American south amidst the Great Depression. The two begin as petty, small time thugs, their antics initially founded upon Clyde’s desire to woo the young woman, but as they journey across the United States they graduate from petty small timers to criminal cult celebrities.
Particularly countercultural is the film’s undoubtedly sympathetic portrayal of the fated lovers; Bonnie, a young waitress who has grown complacent with life, willing to challenge its stagnancy with a ferocious reckless abandon. And Clyde, fresh out of prison, a cocky and perceptive young man who treats existence with a jovial nihilism. Rather than continue to be a square peg trying to wrestle herself into the round hole of life, Bonnie finds a vehicle for cheating the system in Clyde and the two are united in their longing to ambitiously take life by the scruff of the neck, their dreams of grandeur fuelling them across the South in a blazing trail of robberies. It is here in the youthful innocence of their hopes that the film finds grounds to romanticise the two, not the criminal means by which they look to attain them, however the film can’t help but be patchy in its characterisation.
On a whim the two abandon everything and pursue a life of criminality together, a contrived abandon, particularly with little back story to validate it, and instead we must be told how infatuated they are with one another as the rendering of true affection appears just out of Penn’s grip. Equally problematic is its jarring underpinning of each dramatic sequence with comedy. The blistering bluegrass instrumental and its screwball sensibility which accompany it are counterintuitive. Whilst it may be done to capture the new found happy-go-lucky attitudes of the bandits, it’s a case of the film wanting its cake and eating it too, the confronting physicality it strives for and its comedic optimism never quite gelling.
It isn’t until the second half where the film begins to contemplate mortality that it finds its dramatic footing.
Along their travels Bonnie and Clyde recruit gas station attendant, C.W Moss (Michael J. Pollard), an idealising young man all too easily caught up in their fantasy, as well as Clyde’s brother and sister-in-law Buck and Blanche (a pitch perfect Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons). Buck is the older of the two but is doubly immature; he too is caught up by the prospect of an easy way through life, whilst Blanche is never more than a shrill and fearful hindrance.
As a group they begin to pile up the bodies in a bloody heap and rapidly add to their criminal resume, but like a bee that uses its stinger, each bullet they fire into an opposing official brings them closer to their own bleak destiny. A sense of brooding fatalism pervades the picture as the gang ironically strengthens their celebrity status, its renowned violence proving confronting and completely without glamour and its relationships shaking off their static edge which threatened to derail them. The characters grow fascinatingly closer as they are forced to together acknowledge their synonymous fates.
The film’s deliberately choppy editing and juxtapositions gives it an undoubted visual flare, its finale a perfectly crafted flurry of violent chaos and genuine romance as it eventually gets its foot in the stirrup of captivating carnage and compelling calamity. However it is largely too muddled to be as affecting as it ought to be. In spite of its great performances and bravado, for much of its duration Bonnie and Clyde feels like a series of disjointed dramatic sketches, and unique though it may all be, it doesn’t equate to the film’s glowing reputation.