Friday, December 9, 2011

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 73
Year: 1969
Writer: William Goldman
Director: George Roy Hill
Star: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is a fun buddy comedy that succeeds mostly because of the talent and chemistry of its two leads. For a film about two outlaws who are destined for death, it’s very pleasant. This is a good movie, but since it’s on the AFI Top 100, I was expecting something…more.

The two titles characters (Paul Newman and Robert Redford, respectively) are bank and train robbers extraordinaire. Butch is great with the quips and Sundance lets his crackerjack pistol aim speak for itself. They are both sorta kinda in love with the same dame, a schoolteacher named Etta (Katherine Ross).

The screenwriter, William Goldman, does a great job at setting up the characters quickly and with humor. Sundance is set up when a cocksure poker player immediately cowers upon hearing who he’s playing against, and we learn everything we need to know about Butch in how he takes down a mutiny within his own group of thieves.

Both seem attracted to Etta, but in different ways. Sundance is the one who is in a “relationship” with her, and it’s all about the sex and physical attraction. But the next morning she goes to Butch, and they play around together like little children. The two men joke around about who really loves her, but this is never brought to a head. In the end, Etta removes herself from the situation—which is just fine since this is a “love story” about the two men. And no, I’m not going to describe it by using the word “bromance,” because that word makes me want to die inside.

This type of buddy comedy needs a really good, engaging villain to make it pop, and there’s none here. One day, while robbing a train (in an inspired bit, they find themselves dealing with the same banker they almost blew up earlier in the film, who ends up apologizing to them for reinforcing his safe), a posse of men arrives and begins chasing them. They never stop. We are told who some of the men in the posse may or may not be, but we don’t meet them and they never share any lines or significant moments with our leads.

Now, let me make myself clear, this is a fantastic idea for a villain and a great way to build consistent suspense and a sense of impending doom. In a straight drama. But this is a comedy, and the long sequences of the group following Butch and Sundance no matter what they do to make them lose the trail simply doesn’t create suspense, no matter how well shot or atmospheric they are. They seem like scenes from another film, and the entire tone of the project shifts until the boys bicker about jumping off a cliff together into the rapids below.

After that close call, they decide to go to Bolivia (with Etta in tow), and then there’s a very odd, out-of-place “montage” of photographs showing the threesome leaving the Wild West and heading to New York before moving south of the border. It feels like the montage of photographs goes on forever, though in reality it must be under two minutes. But still, two minutes of photographs? Really? I would have much rather watched a two-minute scene of Butch, Sundance and Etta completely out of place in NYC or, especially, at the amusement park on Coney Island having fun with one another. Was this done to save money? I would tend to think so normally, but this was a Paul Newman movie made at the peak of his stardom, so I doubt it.

Once they get to Bolivia, there are a lot of fun little scenes, most of them of Sundance complaining about the country. Butch tries to convince him that all of Bolivia can’t be like the run-down pit they first arrive at, and Sundance’s response is great: “How do you know? This might be the garden spot of the whole country. People may travel hundreds of miles just to get to this spot that we're standing now. This might be the Atlantic City, New Jersey of all Bolivia for all you know.”

The film’s ending also seems out of tone with the rest of the film. Yes, Etta had mentioned something about them being doomed to die, but the climactic gun battle seems like something out of an earlier script draft before all the wise cracks and quips had been plugged in. It’s all very “the last five minutes of ‘Thelma and Louise.’” But at least Goldman and director George Roy Hill had the good sense to freeze frame on the two guys going off into battle one final time instead of going all “Bonnie and Clyde” on us, which would have really left a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth.

I’m not a big fan of movies that pretend to be light and fun and then switch gears to become deep and tragic just to seem more meaningful than they are (I’m looking at you, “Moulin Rouge!”, with that exclamation point in your title and most depressing final act ever). The smarter thing to do would be to find a way to wrap your message into the fabric of the film without altering the tone completely. I’m not against killing off the two main characters at the end of a movie, but if Goldman and Hill were planning on it, they should have created a movie that better suited the ending.

Despite this, the movie still works, and that is because of Newman and Redford’s wonderful performances. No matter how much the tone of the piece changes, they keep the boat steady by making us believe in their friendship. Their personalities really do compliment one another well and there’s a fantastic give and take in their work together. This creative team really could have made a masterpiece together. Oh wait, they did. It’s called “The Sting.”

My Score (out of 5): ***1/2

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