“Sometimes I like to think that fever of an unexpected origin, that I never came out of the other side. And that the rest of my life, none of it ever happened, especially that part where I got shot 37 times, giving my Bonnie Parker her big ending.”
When you’re telling the story of Bonnie and Clyde, it’s very hard to say anything new. The exploits of the pair were followed closely by the entire nation. Newspaper accounts and silver screen newsreels took advantage of every turn of events in the case. Most of you think that today’s wall-to-wall coverage of tragic events is something new and disturbing. Not so; the case of Bonnie and Clyde covered not just the crimes, but the lifestyles. They published Bonnie’s rambling poetry and posed photos the pair themselves sent to the papers. Film trailer voices boomed the events with dramatic telling. It was all out there to see.
Then came the books and biographies and finally the iconic film by director Arthur Penn that starred Warren Beatty as Clyde and Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker. The film took a few Oscars and delivered one of the most violent climaxes Hollywood had seen to that time. Just like the actual days of Bonnie and Clyde, the film stirred a hornets’ nest of controversy. Now director Bruce Beresford attempts to deliver a 3-hour miniseries on the couple. I’d say he’s starting from quite a disadvantage. What can he tell us; more importantly, what can he show us that we haven’t seen before? Now more time has passed since the Arthur Penn film than had gone by between Bonnie and Clyde’s crime spree and that film. Our collective memories are tainted so much more by Penn’s images than anything remotely resembling historical. This story has been given a life of its own that has little to do with Bonnie Parker and/or Clyde Barrow.
The 1967 film starts with Bonnie and Clyde already well into their life of crime. It’s really a ride toward the bloody finish that marks that film. Penn manages to infuse that ill-fated ride with plenty of action and even humor along the way. Beresford takes a decidedly different approach here. He starts the story with a young Clyde suffering from a near-fatal fever of unexplained origin. He survives with a kind of second sight that gives him glimpses into the future. We jump ahead and find older Clyde (Hirsch) and his brother Buck (Garrison) crashing the party of one Bonnie (Grainger) to another man. He can’t stop looking at the bride, and they are soon evicted from the reception. It appears his second sight has been giving him visions of Bonnie since the fever.
After a short life of petty crime with his brother, Clyde manages to avoid jail, at first, and soon comes calling when he hears Bonnie husband has left her. Meanwhile Bonnie has been looking for fame. She’s sent headshots to the film studios only to be rejected. When the law catches up with Clyde she makes a life-altering decision to break him out, and their crime-spree lives are off and running.
Along the way there are a few third partners that run from Clyde’s jail buddies to his brother Buck and his wife. None of these combinations are as dynamic as the couple themselves, of course, and they eventually gain the notice that Bonnie wanted so much. They would compare themselves with Pretty Boy Floyd, who was getting a lot of newsreel notice at the time. Bonnie would become obsessed with having that kind of notoriety. We all know how it ends, however.
Beresford attempts to fill in the blanks left by history and the first film. He spends more time building the romance between his two main characters. It’s a noble effort, but the first half of the miniseries appears bogged down. He takes perhaps too much time on the relationship and considerably less on the action that is really the draw to a Bonnie and Clyde show. The result is an often painfully slow first half. He’s not building our anticipation as much as he’s trying our patience. That’s not to say there aren’t some pretty nice character moments to be had. It all relies on the performances, and they are rather mixed.
Emile Hirsch is a pretty solid choice for Clyde Barrow. He has enough of the intensity to carry both the emotional and action moments of the piece. Beresford also makes the choice of using Hirsch as Clyde’s narration through the film. It appears Clyde’s telling us the story after he’s dead. I’m not sure I ever like the device, and the narration is mostly unnecessary. Hirsch does a good enough job of telling us where Clyde’s at in his head by his performance. Beresford should have trusted his actor more. We get the idea that Clyde is becoming increasingly concerned with just how vicious and callous Bonnie is. Hearing him talk about it only serves as a distraction.
Where Beresford should have had more concern with his cast was in the performance of Holliday Grainger. She has a pretty good look for the part, to be sure. Not too glamorous, she looks like she could have been a depression-era woman. She has the kind of round face we often associate with the time. She also manages to deliver a good enough portrayal of Bonnie Parker. She’s great with expression and with a seduction that doesn’t rely so much on the sultry looks we usually think of. Where she fails the part completely is in her voice. Grainger is British. There are a ton of Brits out there who do great American accents. Grainger is not one of them. Her Southern drifts into several versions throughout the film. There’s also a nasal quality to her voice that got under my skin. No matter how well she plays the physical character, I kept wishing she’d just shut up.
There are some rather interesting supporting characters to be found here. The best of these is William Hurt as retired lawman Frank Hammer. Hammer comes out of retirement to track down and catch the couple. By the end of the film it’s quite an obsession, and he’ll do anything it takes to get them. It’s also clear early on that Hammer has no intention of bringing them in alive. He’s appalled that the public appear to love them and are willing to harbor them. When lawmen start dying, Hammer’s resolve turns to stone. Here’s a character I wish Beresford had spent a little more time developing. Credit Hurt for bringing out a fully-formed character, but I can’t escape the feeling there was more to this than meets the eye. While the film provides plenty of motivation for his narrow-visioned mission, Hurt plays him as if there was something or someone in his past that is feeding his own inner furnace. I would have really liked to know what that was.
Holly Hunter stars as Bonnie’s mother. Again there are flashes of something underneath that we never got to see. Perhaps it was her own relationships that remind her of her daughter’s flirtations with such a dangerous destiny. Hunter appears to enjoy walking around in fancy hats and is not as much of an influence on the plot as her screen time might imply.
Lane Garrison is one of the better supporting performers here as Clyde’s brother Buck. The two share incredible chemistry for the short time they are actually together. You’ll believe the brotherly connection completely. Garrison is underused, but much of that is, of course, by necessity in serving the story.
Beresford attempts to be stylish at times. There are Clyde’s bloody visions. There’s also a bit of tampering with time that isn’t always as obvious as it should be. We don’t always know exactly where we are in the story, and Beresford doesn’t bother to leave any breadcrumbs for us to follow our way back to the main path.
The film does deserve credit for the nice period work here. The cars are particularly fine in the film. Costumes appear quite authentic, and Beresford managed to utilize locations that absolutely fit the story.
When the end comes, it comes almost as we expect. Beresford throws a little element to the ambush that is interesting but not very likely. The audience will probably be divided on this one. I did not find it at all credible. We do get the massive rain of bullets everyone is expecting, and in the end ,who knows what went through the minds of Bonnie and Clyde…except for those bullets, I mean.
Bonnie And Clyde is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 25-30 mbps. The high-definition image presentation is about average. The period style keeps colors rather muted, but there are exceptions that only pop off the screen all the more because of the style. Cars are particularly good-looking here. There’s a nice sharpness and clean texture that allows you to reach out and touch the glossy finishes in your mind. Unfortunately, the period material is too clean and lacks the texture the cars have. This is one of those times that a little grain adds a certain element that a super-clean image doesn’t have. You don’t get a feel for the costumes in any tactical sense. It’s very much a modern image that never quite feels very much like the 1930’s.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is pretty much what you expect. The music drives the background, while dialog often dominates the main sound field. The gunfights offer a chance for more aggressive surrounds, and they do just that. The sub never takes advantage, however, so that there are moments when it all feels a bit flat and empty. Fortunately, those moments do not dominate the entire film. The dialog stands out perfectly, and the score is allowed some subtle emotional cues that help the pace of the plodding first half.
The two-Blu-ray set features the entire 3-hour film on the first disc. The second contains the following bonus features all in HD.
Iconography – The Story Of Bonnie And Clyde: (15:30) Cast and crew have their own thoughts both on the original events and the film itself. Hurt waxes a bit poetic.
Becoming Bonnie: (10:34) This piece focuses on Holliday Grainger, who offers us her thoughts on the character of Bonnie.
Becoming Clyde: (5:37) Emile Hirsch gets about half the time to tell us about playing Clyde.
A Legendary Story Revisited: (16:05) The writers dominate this feature. It was amusing hearing one talk about not letting the truth get in the way of a good story.
Bonnie and Clyde have been glamorized and romanticized since the days they were still on the run. The subject matter truly is iconic. Add to that a very important feature film, and Beresford had his work cut out for him. There are moments making this worth a watch, but I don’t believe it will have any true staying power. Twenty years from now we’ll still be talking about Bonnie and Clyde, and the 1967 film will still be Hollywood’s defining recreation of that story. Beresford had to learn a lesson many lawmen in the 1930’s learned the hard way, “Don’t mess with Bonnie and Clyde”.