From Bonnie & Clyde to Thelma & Louise: The Archetype of the Criminal Duo in Film
Retelling the Story
In film, there have been a myriad of iterations of the Bonnie and Clyde story, some accentuating their criminal conquests, some looking into the lives of the real people behind the legend, and many with parodic or comedic interpretations. “The most comprehensive version of this is undoubtedly Arthur Penn’s 1967 violent masterpiece, Bonnie and Clyde, which changed modern cinema and paved the way for the era of the likes of Coppola and Scorsese,” explains Ellie Adams, a movie review blogger at Draft Beyond and Research Papers UK.
Other Tellings of the Bonnie and Clyde Story
Since this classic telling, Bonnie and Clyde’s life story has been remade as a mini-series (Bonnie & Clyde, 2013), a semi-biographical take on Bonnie’s life (The Bonnie Parker Story, 1958), a Looney Tunes short (Bunny and Claude: We Rob Carrot Patches, 1968), a couple of less successful TV movies (Bonnie and Clyde: The True Story, 1992; Bonnie & Clyde: Justified, 2013), and various spoofs through the years (Teenage Bonnie and Klepto Clyde, 1993; Bonnie and Clyde Vs. Dracula, 2011; Bonnie and Clyde, Italian Style, 1982). Most recently, Netflix released The Highwaymen (2019) which focused instead on the journey of the Texas Rangers who were hired to take them out.
Re-interpreting the Iconic Relationship:
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
But the iconic dynamic of such a tightly bonded criminal duo has been re-interpreted into countless other films. Take the example of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), in which we follow another iconic criminal duo through their rise to infamy and eventual deaths. The relationship between Butch and Sundance essentially invented the ‘buddy-cop’ trope, echoing the close personal relationships formed in crime, as with Bonnie and Clyde.
Thelma & Louise
“In the same way, the controversial yet wildly successful cult classic Thelma & Louise presented audiences with a stark and provocative portrayal of the volatile nature of male-female relationships in comparison to the female-female relationship,” says Felicity Laurence, an entertainment journalist at Writinity and LastMinuteWriting. It investigated the same complexities that drives those without power to turn to crime – much like Bonnie and Clyde robbing banks during the Great Depression.
Why is the Trope so Persistent in Film?
Whether it’s starting a fight club, running high-profile scams, or working as hitmen, it has become a well-beloved trope for movies to star a couple of questionable protagonists. It’s the classic complex of any good villain: they are convinced they are the hero of the story. So, these films focus on their adventures, their struggles, to humanise the criminals and show you their perspective.
Take the cult classic Pulp Fiction (1994) – we follow two hitmen, dealing with violence and revenge, as they discuss philosophical questions and share amusing banter. This contrast between the personal relationship between the two men and their jobs draws on the timeless precedent set out by the infamous Bonnie and Clyde archetype.
These examples are just a few of the many films that have recycled the Bonnie and Clyde relationship dynamic in their own way. And it isn’t always in crime – it has also often been made to work for just the opposite. You can see this in Men in Black and Beverly Hills Cop, for example, where the same type of relationship is juxtaposed with an equally intense and violent plot. Some other examples of this can be found in Training Day, Bad Boys, Rush Hour, Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, and Miami Vice, to name just a few. All of the films capitalize on the established archetype made famous by Bonnie and Clyde and the male-male version popularised by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.