Bonnie and Clyde: Natural Born Killers

         "They're young! They're in love! And they kill people!" Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) revolutionized cinema by introducing viewers to a world of necessary violence. Traditionally, Western films always displayed heavy emphasis on fatality and violence, but Bonnie and Clyde was one of the first films to ever utilize gratuitous blood, "achieved through the practice of graphically depicting, for the first time on the screen, impact and exit wounds produced by bullets" (Cook 412).

         Because of Bonnie and Clyde, "crime began to be treated less moralistically and melodramatically so that it became possible... to sympathize with criminals as human beings." Authority figures attacked the film as being nothing more than lewd and ultra-violent. But Bonnie and Clyde was not just another shoot-'em-up gangster film; it was "a sophisticated blend of comedy, violence, romance, and... politics." Like everyone else during the Depression, Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) are upset about the social, political and economic states of their lives. The difference is they decide to do something about it (Cook 429).

         Viewers raised the status of the movie's stars to that of national folk heroes. "Thousand of berets were sold worldwide after Faye Dunaway wore them in this film" because people did not just like Bonnie and Clyde; they wanted to be Bonnie and Clyde ("Bonnie").

         Naturally, the movie spawned many "criminal couple" and "road pictures," which attempted to emulate the aspects, which made it so innovative and popular. One highly modernized version is Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994). Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) are not bank robbers who occasionally end up shooting someone; they are straight-up serial killers. And they are proud of their business. In the same vein as Bonnie and Clyde proudly proclaiming to everyone they meet that they "rob banks" Mickey and Mallory make a point to always leave one person at the crime scene alive to tell their story.

         It is the tiny details that most reflect inspiration from Bonnie and Clyde. The most humorous references are those which poke fun at Clyde's struggle with impotence. When Mickey leaves the pharmacy after killing the clerk, he makes a point to steal a bottle of Viagra-like medicine. And once outside, a Japanese reporter incorrectly translates the phrases, "He is quite virile!" and "He is now rendered impotent!" when describing his capture by the police.

         Like Bonnie, Mallory is in desperate need of affection during the entire movie. But "every time Mallory engages in sexual or sexually suggestive activities with someone (other than Mickey), she attacks them... This shows her fascination with sex fuels her fascination with violence" ("Natural"). Near the end of the film, Mickey says "the only thing that can kill a demon is love"; that love is what made him and Mallory decide to stop killing people. This love is also shared between Bonnie and Clyde and is what allows people to see their humanity and sympathize with them.

         The character of Wayne Gale (Robert Downey, Jr.) is similar to that of Buck Barrow (Gene Hackman) in that they both seem to be neutral about the whole situation, but end up commiserating with the killers and being sucked into the crime spree by their charisma. And Detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) can be loosely compared to the criminal accessory that is Blanche (Estelle Parsons). Their characters would never be pegged as people who could easily be sucked into the fugitive lifestyle: the detective because he is supposed to be an upstanding man of the law, and Blanche because she is the daughter of a preacher. But something--whether it is the constant barrage of violence all around them, to save themselves, or something deeper and more psychological--drives them to take part in the killing of innocent people.

         Natural Born Killers may be part of a long list of fugitive couple movies influenced by the classic film, but it is not so much homage to Bonnie and Clyde as a reaction against it. It is a morbidly exaggerated examination of a culture, which romanticizes and glamorizes the badass/ gangster/ criminal lifestyle. "[Oliver] Stone creates a rhythm of violence that is frenetic from the start but rises to a fever pitch... and he keeps upping the ante on what is acceptable to watch until we are deeply implicated in the most prurient forms of voyeurism that media can pander to" (Cook 877).

         Natural Born Killers also focuses a great deal on television and the media being the perpetrators who have allowed violence to become a part of mainstream life. Wayne Gale represents every reporter who claims to be an impartial informant, but who obviously has the power to sway the public opinion in any direction he chooses. An interesting connection between Bonnie and Clyde and Natural Born Killers is that "the story told on "American Maniacs"... is taken almost verbatim from a story made up by J. Edgar Hoover in the 1930s about bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker during the [trial] to quash the public's growing favorable opinion of the pair" ("Bonnie").

         The speed at which violence in the movies and on television can slither its way into reality is absolutely amazing. "A young couple went on a crime spree after viewing the film on LSD and the family of one of their victims claims this film inspired their crimes and sued for damages" ("Natural"). LSD-like imagery was one of multiple mechanisms used by the director to "create a collage of the many ways violence is imaged in our culture" (Cook 876). If Bonnie and Clyde was best known for its utilization of gratuitous blood to make a statement, Natural Born Killers blows it away, so to speak.

         The ending of Natural Born Killers comes as no surprise. It utilizes the same Swiss cheese shooting seen at the end of Bonnie and Clyde; only instead of feeling pity for the main characters we now hate them even more than before. The fact that Mickey and Mallory make it out of the riot alive somehow manages to glorify them as criminal masterminds and horrify us all at the same time. Just when they seem to show a semblance of sympathy after a string of murders, they kill the one person who seemed to understand their bizarre and psychotic beliefs. A psychiatrist interviewed by Gale during the course of movie asserted, "Mickey and Mallory know the difference between right and wrong, they just don't give a damn." This mentality is what separates the Bonny and Clydes from the Mickey and Mallories.

Works Cited

"Bonnie and Clyde (1967)". IMDb 1 May 2006 (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061418/trivia). Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. 4th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004.

"Natural Born Killers (1994)". IMDb 27 Apr. 2006 (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110632/trivia)

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Laura Weiter

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