tv review

Seitz on A&E’s Bonnie and Clyde: Mad, Bad, and Painful to Watch

Photo: AE

Talk about nerve. Hoping to match History Channel’s gigantic numbers for its 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, that cable network’s sister station A&E has bankrolled a four-hour tale about the real-life outlaw couple Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. It’s not exactly fresh material: In addition to countless history books and documentaries, the bloodthirsty pair’s story has previously been told in Arthur Penn’s 1967 drama Bonnie and Clyde, one of the most important American films of all time, in terms of its violence, sexuality, and ironic style. A&E hired Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) to direct the project, and decided to air it simultaneously on A&E, History, and Lifetime, so kudos to them, I guess, for dreaming big. But this miniseries is terrible, as close to a complete waste of time as I’ve encountered in my two years of writing for this publication.

In contrast to Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, or for that matter almost any gangster story you can name, this miniseries has no real point of view of its main characters — no sense of who they were beyond their most basic plot functions, much less what values they expressed or opposed. There’s a smidgen of artistic POV in the dubious notion that Bonnie totally drove the relationship, while Clyde was a schlump who might have whiled away his twilight years in peace if that vain tart hadn’t gotten her hooks into him. (“He held the gun. She called the shots,” the ads assert, which would be silly even if we didn’t see Bonnie firing actual shots in the clips.) Beyond that, this is another one of those dag-blasted historical potboilers that thinks “drama” equals “acting out stuff that happened.”

Clyde — played by Emile Hirsch, who has been excellent elsewhere but is close to a zero here — narrates the miniseries as a sort of extended rise-and-fall narrative, coupled with a foolish love story. This is the worst kind of narration — the kind that tells you things you could already see or intuit, when it’s not smearing personal and historical factoids atop the scenes. Bonnie, played by Holliday Grainger of The Borgias, is a sexy hellion who attaches herself to Clyde as a means of escaping her humdrum existence. There’s not much sense of the real-life Bonnie, who was comfortable around the “criminal element” long before she met Clyde and married a brutal criminal at age 16. This one just wants to be famous. She dreams of being an actress and practically falls apart when she gets a rejection letter from Columbia Pictures. She’s the mastermind of Bonnie-and-Clyde-as-celebrities, the half of the couple who escalates violent situations or reacts to them with chilling indifference, and the fame-monger who obsessively maintains a scrapbook, comes up with the bright idea that “Bonnie” should go before “Clyde” in newspaper stories, and even confronts a reporter at home when she fails to get the order of billing right.

Clyde, meanwhile, is depicted, rather half-assedly, as a quasi-mystical seeker, a man-child who had a vision of Bonnie as a much younger man and recognizes her as his dream girl: his destiny. Throughout the miniseries, Clyde comes off as essentially decent, if rather dumb and volatile, while Bonnie becomes more and more of a harpy, to the point that any love she once felt for Clyde is subsumed by a ravenous desire for more, more, more fame. This is vastly less complex, not to mention interesting, than the version of the relationship presented in the 1967 movie, where Bonnie and Clyde’s thirst for notoriety was a team effort that came out of two very different dysfunctional family histories.

An all-star supporting cast — including Holly Hunter as Bonnie’s mother and William Hurt as Frank Hamer, who comes out of retirement to catch the duo — acts mostly in a void, their often precise and thoughtful choices presented in a blandly unimaginative manner. Were the miniseries well-made, its story might be engaging anyhow, in a bad-for-you-but-you-can’t-stop-watching way. But the script, by Joe Bateer and John Rice, has no sense of shape; it’s just a collection of things that happen en route to a preordained bloody ending. And Bruce Beresford, a workmanlike director who’s made well-crafted historical dramas in the past (including the excellent Black Robe and Breaker Morant), is asleep at the switch here. The desperate and sometimes painfully clumsy editing keeps shifting into slow-motion for no discernible reason (if they’re going for a “reverie” thing, it’s not working). And some of the Oliver Stone–lite montage effects — such as splicing in random frames from earlier or later scenes — are embarrassing, because they seem less like attempts to shape the story (as Clyde’s memory, perhaps) than to jazz up a project that for a variety of reasons stumbles right out of the gate.

This is four hours of your life you’ll never get back.

TV Review: A&E’s Bonnie and Clyde