It was a strange last note to end this season’s version of DC’s “Screen on the Green” outdoor movie series. I am not sure the crowd gathered on picnic blankets were fully ready to see Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow absolutely riddled, pummeled full of machine gun fire as the screen went black with just “The End” on a title card. It made for a pensive conclusion to Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, and it is not difficult to see the seeds of Drugstore Cowboy, Thelma and Louise, Natural Born Killers and other outlaw pictures. The message of the picture itself is not particularly profound – the two folks got what was coming to them, frankly – but the arc of the journey reveals a voyage to doom that – while released in 1967 and set in the Depression – is still absolutely contemporary in its truths.
The movie is a series of episodes and set pieces centering around the forming and deforming of a band of Depression Era robbers in the Dust Bowl. We start with Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow trying to steal a car in front of a sort of working class looking house. From the upper window Bonnie (Dunaway) looks down and catches him – they flirt briefly and lo and behold, she is in his car and away they go. In a modern movie now, you’d’ see the home she ran away from, some attempt to establish her background. However, we never see that – we see her reaction and we see some references to it – but until her central reunion with her mama, her actual need to escape is really just sort of presupposed. In a way, her background doesn’t matter – it could just as easily be narcissism and the fascination with a real live criminal. This is reinforced further when she gets a chance to fire a gun.
Clyde, we learn has just come out of a time in prison, which he seems to refer to quite proudly – as if it were a pickup line. If we know little about where Bonnie comes from, we know even less about Clyde. Sure he acts chummy with his brother (Gene Hackman), but they don’t have anything to say to each other. There is no biographical information – he is a robber, and that is his entire identity. Clyde, as he proclaims, is not much of a lover – and there is the hint of sexual compensation in his guns and robbin – the confidence there that he cannot earn in the bedroom. Ultimately their universes are boiled down to this rather pathetic existence.
Clyde promises them a chance to get out this hick town, but as we watch them in action, they aren’t particularly good robbers. They pick up a young, dumb kid at a gas station to drive a getaway car, and he stupidly parks it while they hold up a bank. They hold up a grocery store and Clyde damn near gets killed in an ambush from behind. The jobs are sloppy, and while they are making money, they are leaving bodies and clues in their wake. Even once Buck and his very shrill wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons – who won an Oscar for this role, and of course terrorized Roseanne on TV for years) join the gang, the jobs don’t go that much better. What becomes interesting as we see them running, is that really that is all they are doing. They have money – but are they spending it? What is the cause? Penn gives no motivations to why they need to do this – aside from that they are criminals and that is what they do.
That explains Clyde fine, but still where does that leave Bonnie? She is clearly star struck and the Barrow gang become more interested in the marketing of their vocation than the vocation itself. Witness the photos she takes for the papers – and the “Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde”. As Stone would later develop in Killers, the robbing thing becomes intoxicating. In particular note the particularly unwise move they make with one Sheriff when they end up nabbing him. Oh, sweet hubris!
That said, all of this would make Bonnie and Clyde a rollicking tale of populist outlaws – maybe … but it is a sad tale of pathos ultimately – and this gets thrown into sharp relief when Bonnie reunites with her family for one last visit. We see the kids, and see the home life that Bonnie had. It was poor, but not that bad frankly. Clyde muses about living a couple miles from her mother. Then Penn focuses on her mother’s face – with the severity and weathered age that is almost as eerie as William S Burroughs – she tell Bonnie that she’ll be dead if they live near her. It is hard not to feel the abject uselessness of their quest. The loneliness, the meaninglessness of it all. Sure it gets some laughs, but for all those bulletholes, come on.