While America reeled from the first pangs of The Great Depression, there was a sense the American Dream and all its patriotic glory was about to be brought to its knees. There it would remain for half a century until the fast-paced jitters of coked-up stockbrokers and self-enlightened aristocrats would beat it senseless with a pipe, the blood of a dearly cherished fantasy trickling down to fewer and fewer as the steamrolling of modernity soon came into view. Bonnie and Clyde are the resistance to that, however violent or devoid of moral their actions may be. Arthur Penn directs us through the lives of Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) as their crime spree paints a streak of red across the country.
Penn presents the Earth-shattering brilliance in all its true and engrossing glory. Beatty and Dunaway have immediately obvious chemistry with one another. It is infectious and creative, with both roles riffing off of the confidence and closely-guarded secrets that are a touch too sore for public admittance. We know from the opening that at least one of these characters is beyond salvation, and it is the contagious charisma Clyde presents that soon possesses Bonnie, an alluring life of crime, rummaging through the forgotten many of the American system. Does she fall for him through passion or boredom? Both are equally convincing, but neither is greater than the other. Balance is crucial, Bonnie and Clyde does just that.
Her shift from innocent bystander of life to maddened criminal is fast, but Penn paces this extremely well. An attraction felt not just for the person she encounters, but what he stands for. His attitude against the conformity of a nation in distress is admirable, but for all the wrong reasons. Clyde, and eventually Bonnie too, do this for the kick of adrenalin they receive from extreme vagrancy, rather than a fight against the system that boxed up and broke down millions of people. Clyde pontificates often, surmising individuals before they’ve had a chance to spill their story, while Bonnie is the lingering connection to the real world, still aware of her imperfections but actively trying to change and improve. Clyde has all but given up, there is twisted joy in his reliant companion. Their travels take them through the struggling farmhands who used to live it up on the sweet styles and overconsumption of the Roaring 20s, and it is here the emotion of the leading two shines through.
They do not rob from the weak or the wounded, but from those who would get on by just fine without their cars and cash. Bonnie and Clyde as characters are superb, as a film, it is a fundamental, crucial piece of a foundation that would steer the Hollywood ship toward a decade of glory. It is on the cusp of perfection, but a few bad apples destroy the motivation and style presented by Penn’s incredible work. Michael J. Pollard is one such problem, and when the film diverts its attention from the titular bank robbers, we as an audience are all the worse for it.