Monday, May 20, 2019

On Portraying Real Evil: Ted Bundy and Bonnie and Clyde

How should we treat evil in fiction, especially the evil acts of real historical figures? Should we avoid humanizing these villains out of fear of romanticizing or downplaying their horrific crimes? This is the question that struck me over this weekend watching two Netflix Originals. The Highwaymen covers the manhunt for the celebrated bank robbers and murderers Bonnie and Clyde. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile focuses on the relationship between the less-celebrated serial killer Ted Bundy and his long-time girlfriend Liz Kendall.

In Extremely Wicked, Ted Bundy’s crimes remain unseen, mentioned only secondhand in news reports or during his trial. Zac Efron’s Bundy is always charming and sympathetic, if overconfident. But that, too would come across as endearing if one came in with no prior knowledge. 

The audience’s familiarity with his crimes does most of the work conveying the unsettling notion that this is a man who has done unspeakable evil. The only acknowledgment the film gives of his crimes is his glib confession to Liz in the very final minutes of the film. I was left with the feeling that this was the story as Bundy himself would have it told.

In contrast, Highwaymen is a refreshing and, in my opinion, more accurate take on the murderous Bonnie and Clyde than the unduly romantic and sympathetic treatment given in the more famous 1967 film starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. In Highwaymen, Bonnie and Clyde can hardly be described as characters. Their faces are never shown except when riddled with bullets. Most of what we see is the bloody aftermath of their crimes. The shots that do include them are either of their shoes, their car, or a Tommy Gun, Browning Automatic Rifle, or shotgun, usually spraying lead at unsuspecting passersby or police who get in their way. 

The evidence of their humanity is second-hand, from accounts from their childhood friend, from Clyde Barrow's father telling of Clyde's path into criminality beginning with police overreaction over a stolen chicken. But beyond these vignettes, the couple are a force of evil, true villains that the audience is unable to empathize with. One of the protagonists says it explicitly: "those kids you grew up with aren't human anymore." 

This is a common notion today, that evil is not human. As an example, Jimmy Fallon was criticized for “humanizing” Donald Trump, the current embodiment of evil for The Resistance. Well, I hate to break it to you: Donald Trump is human. Hillary Clinton is human.

Democrats, Republicans, Labour, Conservative, Socialists and Fascists, Hitler and Stalin, all human. Efforts to dehumanize our villains only deny us the ability to confront not only their evil, but the capacity for evil in all of us. 

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, victim of Stalin’s gulags, writes: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being ...”

The approach taken by Highwaymen works in this case, but only because of the audience’s broader familiarity with the romantic tragedy of Bonnie and Clyde and its sympathetic portrayal of the murderous couple. 

But fiction is most powerful when it leads us to empathize, as opposed sympathize, with the our most hated villains, while still unblinkingly confronting the suffering and horror of which they, and by extension, humanity, are capable.

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