“We can make it. We can make it if we run,” whispers Ruth (Rooney Mara) in David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” which, after a limited release on Friday, begins its expansion this week. It’s a film we loved at Sundance, and one that in its gentle subversion of the “Lovers on the Run” subgenre—as the prequel comic makes clear, the events of ‘Saints’ mostly take place after the bank robbin’, outlawin’ part of the story is done—reminded us of all the other great (and not so great) films that have pitted a pair of lovers against the law.
It’s not hard to see why this type of film has exerted a continuous hold on our collective imagination, especially in the U.S. (many of the foreign films in the genre are direct nods to the legacy of their American counterparts). As a combination of road movie, gangster film and doomed romance, these movies can be the almost perfect encapsulation of cinematic Americana, all beaten skies and puppy love and car tires tearing up clouds of dust on their way to Burma Shave. There’s something maddeningly thrilling and romantic in the idea that it’s just the two of us against the world, and that if we can just make it over the next horizon there’ll be a place where you and me and this bag of money can live forever—the fantasy of stealing the American Dream and getting away with it.
Individualism, anti-authoritarianism, freedom, youth, wealth, and of course, undying, passionate true love; the genre touches on so many of these deep-rooted myths and urges that really, the surprise is not how many films there are in the category (and we could have stretched our list much, much further), but that there aren’t more. As for the thorny moral question of whether these films tend to glamorize or romanticize a life of crime? Hell yeah they do. In fact, much of the time the morally-mandated sticky ends that the outlaws come to only serve to make even more legendary their exploits—like many of the great icons of American cool, they die young.
So come with us on a wild, rambling journey through 25 lovers-on-the-lam movies. You may be bleeding out after the shootout at that last roadblock and the gas tank’s nearly empty, but it’s just another couple miles to the border, and we can make it if we run.
“Bonnie and Clyde” (1967)
“You've read the story of Jesse James / Of how he lived and died; / If you're still in need / Of something to read, / Here's the story of Bonnie and Clyde.” What more can be said of the triumph that is Arthur Penn’s shot across Hollywood’s bow “Bonnie & Clyde”? First rejected, then roundly embraced by critics and audiences alike (it fizzled out initially only to thrive on re-release, eventually ending up with two Oscar wins from a total of ten nominations), Penn’s chronicle of the infamous doomed lovers is one for the ages. Warren Beatty maintains the air of effortless cool and yet finds vulnerability (especially of the sexual kind) in his portrayal of Clyde Barrow while Faye Dunaway brilliantly oscillates between calculating seductress and haunted, guileless little girl who both fears and expects a bloody denouement. Need we mention the unforgettable final scene, its bold cutting still shocking to this day? Penn surrounds our leads with a uniformly strong cast (among them Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard, and Estelle Parsons, who walked away with the lone acting Oscar bestowed on the film), and allows for moments of mournful beauty, in particular a much-lauded shot of Clyde chasing Bonnie in a vast field as a cloud passes overhead, shrouding the lovers. The film helped open the floodgates to a variety of lesser (and occasionally equally great) imitators and remains a landmark picture, notable for its violence but hardly defined by it. As Bonnie Parker herself wrote, “Some day they'll go down together / And they'll bury them side by side / To few it'll be grief / To the law a relief / But it's death for Bonnie and Clyde.” [A]
Admittedly dated, superficial, marred by an over-acting cast and too self-consciously over-stylized (Dominic Sena was then a music video director making his first feature film), “Kalifornia” is still a movie we have affection for despite its faults. Hell, in 1993, upon its release, some of us thought Sena was going to have a David Fincher-esque career trajectory, but the reality is this dark, chilling road-trip serial killer movie has little of the moral depth that Fincher would bring to “Seven” or later movies. But it did have one hell of an on-the-rise cast for its time, including none-of-them-yet bona fide stars Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis, David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes (“A River Runs Through It” would have been Pitt’s biggest film to that date). Maybe it’s the improbable, potentially silly premise: fresh off a magazine assignment about serial killers, a magazine writer (Duchovny) and his photographer girlfriend (Forbes) decide to expand the subject into a book and embark on a road trip from the East Coast to California to document infamous serial killer murder sites. Short on cash, the couple post a ride-share ad and it's responded to by a white trash duo: the tobacco-chewin’ trailer park janitor Early Grace (Pitt) and his Lolita-like nymphet girlfriend Adele (Lewis). The catch is that Early’s basically been a serial murderer the whole time and along the trip that begins to dawn on the yuppie-ish couple who soon begin to fear for their lives. So it’s lovers on the run (Early breaks parole to leave in the first place), who leave a trail of bodies along the way (unbeknownst to the hosts of the trip), and then turn on their friends. It might be difficult to suspend one’s disbelief to this unlikely set up, but we’ll say this: Pitt, while scene-chewing the whole time with tic-laden mannerisms, is a great mix of darkly comic and truly terrifying. Likewise, Juliette Lewis is superb as the innocent, babydoll-ish Adele who would rather turn a blind eye than acknowledge the fucked-up moral compass of her companion. Scored by Carter Burwell (who composed a great majority of films by the Coen Brothers) and shot by Bojan Bazelli (Abel Ferrara's "King of New York," Gore Verbinski's "The Ring"), the atmospheric mood of dread is pretty top-notch. However Sena’s problem is that his movie is all cool attitude and brooding affection, flaunting the badass morally bankrupt characters and providing little psychological texture underneath it all. But for a generation that has championed style-over-substance "vulgar auteurists" we’re somewhat surprised this thriller hasn’t received a second look in recent years. [B]
“Gun Crazy” (1950)
One of the frequent accusations leveled at this subgenre of film is that the two-people-against-the-world narrative runs the risk of glamorizing or romanticizing the central couple, even though they’re criminals, often murderous ones. And judging by this absolutely scorching, brilliant offering from underrated stylist Joseph H. Lewis, it’s a debate that spans more than half a century, even back into the Hayes Code era, as there can be no doubt that, as sticky their end and as morally tortured, weak and manipulated as both are, Laurie (Peggy Cummins) and Bart (John Dall), the gun-toting, bank-robbing, wildly in love duo here, are just unbelievably fucking cool. Loosely inspired by the real-life Bonnie and Clyde (Laurie occasionally sports that classic beret-and-mac look), the story follows the troubled, gun-obsessed but non-violent Bart from a prologue set during his childhood, just before he’s sent to reform school, to him meeting and falling in with carnival sharpshooter Laurie, as her promise to “try really hard to be good” comes to naught and they sink further into a life of armed robbery and narrow escapes. Dall gives a terrifically sympathetic and conflicted performance as the decent man who sacrifices his decency to be a big guy in the eyes of the woman he loves, but, as her top billing and the film’s original title (“Deadly is the Female”) suggests, this is Cummins’ film, despite Bart’s greater screen time and better-drawn background. Baby-faced, blessed with a talent for marksmanship and troubled by none of Bart’s squeamishness about killing, what stops Laurie from simply being the most fatale of shrewish femmes is the genuineness of her love for Bart and her remarkable self-awareness. The film itself is pretty much a masterpiece, a career high for Lewis, who has a retrospective reputation for managing to hone and craft even the schlockiest of B-movies that came his way into films of astonishing style and even formal experimentation (take the oddly compelling robbery scene which is filmed from the back seat of the car as Laurie drives and she and Bart bicker gently and naturalistically about how to get there, where to park, how heavy the traffic is, etc.) By the poetic end, there’s no doubt where Lewis’, and our, sympathies lie -- not with the world outside, the dead bodies that litter their trail or the family and friends betrayed by their conversion to criminality, but with Laurie and Bart and the private world they create in which, as Bart sums up, only they “are real. Everything else is a nightmare.” [A-]
“Drugstore Cowboy” (1989)
Gus Van Sant’s breakthrough indie classic isn’t quite a by-the-letter lovers-on-the-run film, and much more a drug-addiction story about redemption and self-discovery via Matt Dillon's lead character Bob Hughes. That said, it does fulfill the basic requirements of the genre enough that we decided to include it. Dillon plays the leader of a misfit troupe of drug addicts who rob pharmacies to support their habits. His team includes his superstitious girlfriend Dianne (Kelly Lynch) and a pair of young lovers played by James Le Gros and Heather Graham. Together the quartet travels across the Pacific Northwest pilfering narcotics from unsuspecting drug stores all the while trying to avoid Gentry (James Remar), a detective who is hot on their trail. High on the hog, tragedy strikes and Bob decides to go straight which is effectively a different movie from the familiar paradigm, but only enriches what came before it and gives the film an emotional and spiritual weight that it likely wouldn’t have possessed otherwise. At their worst, lovers-on-the-lam movies can glorify the romantic violence of couples above the law and deliver nothing else; at their most basic they can be truly shallow if the romance doesn’t feel true, heartbreaking and utterly crushing. Van Sant uses the model as a vibrant launching pad for something deeper, more textured and ultimately far more memorable than most. [A-]
“Zabriskie Point” (1970)
Michelangelo Antonioni’s infamous folly is legendary. Here we have the maestro of Italian cinema who had made five stone-cold cinema classics in a row—his modern alienation tetralogy ("L'Avventura," "La Notte," "Eclipse," Red Desert") and of course, his enigmatic swinging London murder mystery masterpiece “Blow Up.” Having conquered the U.K. with the aforementioned seminal ‘60s picture, Antonioni set his sights on America. His first and only U.S. film, “Zabriskie Point” examines the restless youth of the Vietnam-era counter culture, but with few-to-no transformative results. Writers on the screenplay included Sam Shepard, regular collaborator Tonino Guerra and Bernado Bertolluci’s wife Clare Peplo, but even as written by committee, the script was perhaps the least of the movie’s problems (though the dialogue is tone-deaf). High on the list of issues were the two unknown and inexperienced leads Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, whose film credits before and after are basically negligible. Featuring Rod Taylor and G. D. Spradlin in supporting roles (Harrison Ford also has an uncredited part as one of the student demonstrators), “Zabriskie Point” is rebel-without-a-cause-y with a documentary style (at least at first). When a police officer is killed in a student protest, Frechette (who may or may not be responsible), goes on the lam, steals a plane and eventually crosses paths with Halprin’s disaffected character. The two of them eventually (randomly) fall in love and spend time fucking in Death Valley to songs by Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, Kaleidoscope, The Rolling Stones, John Fahey, etc. While the dreamy desert sequences shot by Alfio Contini are beautiful to look at, there’s not a lot more to endorse about this sluggish and aimless movie. A critical and commercial failure upon release, there have been several attempts over the years to reassess the movie as a misunderstood classic and while it’s not as horrible as it’s sometimes made out to be, we’re thankful (even as major Antonioni-ites) that revisionist history never took. [C]