Rooting For the Bad Guys

Bonnie and Clyde are back on screen in the Netflix original, The Highwaymen. After the now-famous pictures of the duo were found at an abandoned hideout and subsequently published, Bonnie and Clyde quickly fired the imaginations of a worn down public during the Great Depression.

Many saw the pair as striking back against an unjust system. They became folk heroes and some compared them to Robin Hood. John Lee Hancock, director of The Highwaymen, thinks that “If they were around today, they would have more Instagram followers than the Kardashians.”¹

Since that time, their image has only grown in the public imagination. Their reputation was further nurtured by the classic 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. The heavily romanticised version of their story solidified the pair’s reputation as rebellious lovers on the run. Recent songs like Taylor Swift’s, “Getaway Car” and Ariana Grande’s “Bad Decisions” continue to highlight the image of the outlaw pair as glamorous lovers.

However, The Highwaymen isn’t interested in furthering this image of Bonnie and Clyde. Choosing instead to focus on two Texas Rangers, Frank Hamer and Manny Gault, who were integral in taking down the notorious couple, the film calls into question our glorification of Bonnie and Clyde.

The simple truth that gets overlooked in our glorification of Bonnie and Clyde is that the pair and their gang were involved in the murders of thirteen people (several police officers and a few civilians). They were not afraid to put down anyone who got in their way. In an early scene from the film, reporters ask Texas Governor, Ma Ferguson, if Bonnie and Clyde are the “Robin Hoods” and “heroes” that people were saying they were. Her response is apt: “Did Robin Hood ever shoot a gas station attendant point blank in the head for $4 and a tank of gas?”

Good question. This should be enough to make us rethink our idolization of Bonnie and Clyde, but as we’ve seen, once an image becomes popular, it’s hard to correct.

In this scene, Hamer is faced head-on with misconceptions about Bonnie and Clyde.

Interestingly enough, though they are known for their bank robberies, most of the people that Bonnie and Clyde robbed were small store owners and “poor folk,” like the very man in this scene. Far from striking back against a system, Bonnie and Clyde made it harder for people whom the depression hit the hardest. This wasn’t the Robin Hood idea of stealing from the rich to give to the poor, but stealing from the poor for the heck of it. Though the pair sometimes helped a few people out, they seem to have been in the business of theft largely for themselves.

The Highwaymen goes a long way towards correcting the false image of Bonnie and Clyde that has held sway in the public imagination for years. This is not to say the film is perfect. At points, it must be admitted that the film does feel like a bit of a sermon on right and wrong. Furthermore, there were a few liberties taken with the facts, and its portrayal of some of the characters is slightly misleading.

Probably the most unnecessary historical change has to do with furthering the image of Bonnie Parker as a machine-gun wielding, cold-blooded killer. Most historians agree that this portrayal of Bonnie is probably inaccurate, and there isn’t any definitive evidence that she ever even fired a gun, though there is some debate. That said, this does nothing to clear her of guilt. She was complicit in over one hundred felonies and several murders, even if she had no hand in actually dealing out death.

All in all, the film offers an important corrective to our cultural fascination with the bad guys. Movies and series like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Scarface, Catch Me if You Can, Oceans 11, The Fast and the Furious, The Italian Job, Suicide Squad and many more encourage us to root for the “bad guys,” ignoring the terrible things that they are doing. No doubt these movies are fun to watch, but if we’re not thoughtful, perhaps our own views about right and wrong will start to get muddy.

Part of our fascination with bad guys is that they often represent the outsider, the one who rejects authority, makes their own path, etc. They are usually portrayed as hip and cool, or romantic and sexy. Perhaps we resonate with them because there’s a rebellious streak in all of us—the same one that caused Adam and Eve to push God out and to be their own gods. We often see our defiance as heroic, but it isn’t and we continue to suffer the consequences.

However, it should also be noted that there is something in us that reacts to injustice. We see something wrong and we want to fix it, but we want to do it on our own terms. Perhaps there was some of this in Bonnie and Clyde’s own story; however, their subsequent actions show how easily our good motivations turn in toward selfishness and sin. This is the ultimate tragedy of the Bonnie and Clyde story—the warping nature of sin that drives them to evil.

At one point in The Highwaymen, Hamer complains that people are idolizing Bonnie and Clyde, calling them heroes. Gault asks, “Who cares what they call them?” and Hamer replies forcefully, “I do!” Probably we should, too.

Whatever their romantic appeal may be, it is time that we recognize and deal with the fact that Bonnie and Clyde were criminals: they stole from the banks, they stole from the poor; they murdered police, they murdered the common man. There is nothing here to celebrate. There is nothing here to idolize. There is only tragedy. The tragedy of innocent lives lost and the tragedy of lives distorted and warped by sin.

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