Friday, December 30, 2011

Day 30: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

"Your time is over and you're gonna die bloody. All you can do is choose where."

The opening credits of 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid read like a who's who of the best in their field. Paul Newman and Robert Redford star, Edith Head did costumes, Conrad Hall shot the film, Burt Bacharach wrote the music, William Goldman wrote the screenplay, George Roy Hill directed... it's a formidable assemblage of talent. Why, then, does the film not totally work? I know that this is blasphemous in some circles (my father saw this movie over ten times in the theater and still quotes it at random), but I think that this is one of the truest examples of a film that is not better than the sum of its parts.

Let's start with the good. The script is fantastic, filled with snappy, endlessly quotable dialogue. The cinematography is breathtaking, seamlessly switching from the sepia-drenched opening to the vast, technicolor beauty of the first hour. Paul Newman may be the most charming actor that ever lived. He's the kind of actor who rarely, if ever, made a misstep, and he's at the top of his game here, just two years removed from his career best performance in Cool Hand Luke. Robert Redford is also very good, though Sundance is more stoic than charming and chooses his words more carefully than Butch does, making it the more thankless role. The music is also great, having won Bacharach two Oscars, one for the score and one for the song "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on my Head." That sequence is great and any time that song shows up in a lesser film (I'm looking at you, Spider-Man 2) it will instantly call this scene to mind.

So, it seems like a pretty good film, so why didn't I like it? Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say I didn't like it, I just don't think it's as good as it should have been. The main reason is the simple fact that no matter how much charm the two leads bring to their roles, their characters are thoroughly unlikable. The first hour when they're being pursued and are constantly on the run and relying on their wits, the film breezes and it's really fantastic. After they jump off the cliff and escape their pursuers, deciding to go to Bolivia, the film grinds to a halt. The odd montage of pictures of their exploits in New York was the first sign that something had gone awry. Stylistically I didn't have a problem with it, I just didn't like the sheer length of it. It's nearly seven minutes of film spent just showing pictures of Butch, Sundance & Etta (Katharine Ross) having fun on Coney Island, etc. but no human connection to this whatsoever.

Once they get to Bolivia and resume their outlaw ways, I lost all sympathy for them. Sure there were charming moments, like Etta teaching them Spanish and them mangling it at every opportunity, but it was all in service of them stealing from people who basically had nothing to begin with. I think the major issue here is that they seem to be stealing because they're bored. There's nothing else for them to do, so they do the only thing they know how to do. Even in their attempt to go straight and get jobs, is the audience supposed to be happy that they steal back the money that was stolen from them? It's a morally ambiguous quagmire that the film gets bogged down in, and I couldn't help but lose what little sympathy I already had for them.

The early scenes breeze by, the fight for control of the Hole-in-the-Wall gang between Butch and the gigantic Logan (Ted Cassidy, best known as Lurch from The Addams Family); the constant run-ins with Woodcock (George Furth); Sweetface's betrayal; the opening card sequence where a young Sam Elliott accuses Sundance of cheating... all of these scenes are fantastic, and led to my favorite scene where they break-in to the office of Sherriff Bledsoe (Jeff Corey) and he gives them the advice I quoted at the top of my review. It's a great, quiet sequence that put the fear of god into them and should have made them seek redemption, but I can't move past the second half where they spit in the face of any hope of redemption.

The ending is iconic, of course. The final freeze-frame is actually the cover-art for the blu-ray, and reminded me too much of that awful Planet of the Apes dvd that was released in 1999 or 2000 where the cover art was Taylor at the Statue of Liberty. But in the end, it's hard to feel bad for them. Their talk of Australia should induce an emotional response of some sort, like Rizzo's dreams of Florida in Midnight Cowboy does, but they've moved beyond redemption at that point, and part of me was almost bored to tears waiting for them to get theirs.

I assume this review will be one of my more controversial as I'm taking down a sacred cow for a lot of people, so I would like to hear what the unabashed lovers of this film think. Leave your comments below!

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  1. Ok there are some points here that I need to address. You say they are unlikable, yet there is no point of the movie that anyone doesnt pull for them (all the more credit by these actors) The example you use at the end when discussing Australia (the best scene in the movie). It is emotional because of your investment in them.

    I mean if you look at movies that have characters that are truly horrible/unlikable people but yet we still love them. (Willy Wonka, Bonnie and Clyde, everyone in Wag the Dog, Rizzo, Travis Bickel)

    Now there is also a scene that stands out where they are sitting at the fire deciding what options they have. The have an exchange that tells us everything that we need to know.

  2. Okay, so here's the thing. I stopped rooting for them right around the time they started robbing banks in Bolivia. They lost my sympathy and I was no longer invested in them at the end. Can we also talk about the fact that Sundance was an asshole to Etta the entire movie. I never knew why she was with him. She has that one line about being 29 and a school teacher and having nothing else to do, but boredom is a pretty bad motivator for a character.
    I'm not saying you can't root for an antihero, I've done so lots of times. I just feel that they spit in the face of redemption and therefore lost my sympathy.