The Bandit Buddy Genre: Doomed Friendship in the Movies

In the study of film genres, it is important to recognize that each genre incorporates a specific set of structural, stylistic and narrative devices that defines that particular genre while differentiating it from others. Films from genres such as the Western all incorporate a set of defining features which define that film as a Western, such as the conquest of the frontier or a hero's expulsion from society. As genres evolve and conventions become established, it is possible for the viewing audience to come to recognize the shared elements within the genre, as well as to expect them in future films. In turn, it is then the duty of filmmakers to fulfill the audience's expectations with more films of the same type. The cyclical process of genre perpetration enables filmmakers to continue making new films within a genre, while the audience is able to continue accepting the films as they continue to be made. Fulfillment of the audience's expectations is the key component of all genre films because it allows the viewers to share in the common values, such as community, individuality, and others that the genres attempt to communicate and explore. It is no surprise then, that many popular genres explore the interactions between humans, whether in a community, through family, or friends. George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy, and Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise are three films that attempt to explore the relationships between two intimate friends as they interact with the environment around them. It is important to note that not only are all of these films "buddy movies," but they all involve implicit similarities that identify them even more specifically as "friends as outsiders films," or in other words, as a genre called the Bandit Buddy genre.
            The term "bandit" here is used to describe any person that is an outlaw or fugitive from the law, or more loosely, an outcast that has shunned or disregarded societal standards. Like in any other genre, the films of the Bandit Buddy genre all incorporate a specific set of narrative and structural conventions that define the film as belonging to the genre. The most obvious requirement is that the film centers on a group of friends, in the case of these three films, two friends, that are intimate or become so during the duration of the movie. It becomes apparent that these friends are not normal members of society. Their actions serve to separate them from their surrounding community, and as a result, they must turn to each other for support and even survival. Their expulsion from society hinges on criminal or outlandish behavior that is seen as unacceptable due to either cultural or lawful reasons. Their outsider status leaves them wishing for a better life, one that is just within their reach. As they attempt to achieve their goal of reaching a utopian destination, they must overcome obstacles by confiding in each other and learning to respect one another. This brings them closer together and their respect for each other grows with time. Unfortunately, the perfect world of their friendship, together with dreams of a perfect destination away from the former society, lead to their ultimate doom. The final failure lies not within them as people, but with the society that shunned them and from which they could not escape. The price for disobeying the laws or cultural conformity of their communities is usually death.
            At first glance, George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid appears to be a film from the Western genre. However, most Western films tend to focus on one individual fighting for a way of life or establishment of a community. Butch Cassidy shifts attention to the exploits of two individuals as friends, who are nothing more than outlaws fighting for their own survival in the face of society. Their mutual outsider status pits them against the law as well as community. Like some Western films, the prospect of the friends rejoining society is long gone because their time as productive members has passed. However, instead of a lone hero riding into the sunset, Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) must rely on each other in an attempt to find something to belong to or somewhere where they can live out the rest of their hopeless lives. Their rash of train and bank robberies finally brings about the wrath of the best lawman in the country. They must flee the country in order to keep doing the only they know how to in Bolivia, which to them is the perfect destination - lawless and full of riches. To get there, they become closer to each other than ever because they know they have nothing else left in the world. They tell each other their real names in a moment of "unprofessional" candidness. In a daring escape from the law, they jump off a cliff into a raging river, even after Sundance confides to Butch that he cannot swim. Moments like these secure their confidence in each other, which must be maintained to achieve their shared goal of staying alive to rob another day. However, in the end, they meet their fates together because they can no longer exist in any society with blatant disregard for its rules.
            Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the eponymous protagonists from Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise are outlaws. However, they do not start out that way, like Butch and Sundance did at the beginning of that film. Louise (Susan Sarandon) ends up shooting and killing a man at a bar after he tries to rape Thelma (Geena Davis), and their road trip quickly turns into a string of crimes because they both realize the explanation of their crime would not be believed by the police, and desperation turns them to alternate means of survival. Thelma robs a store, and they lock a police officer in the trunk of his car, in addition to blowing up a tanker truck. The switch from male to female protagonists becomes important in the way of plot construction because of the portrayal of male brutality that turns the women into outlaws. This suggests that society is dominated by males, and in the world of Thelma and Louise, it is. Even the police that are trying to apprehend them are all male. The destination for the friends is Mexico, a place where they believe they will have freedom from societal duties and male dominance. In the beginning of the film, Thelma is subservient and somewhat reserved, but by the end she has gained a fiery confidence. Louise is always the one making plans and keeping things in control, but when their luck changes, Thelma realizes her friend needs her to step up and make sacrifices for their survival. Louise has nothing to keep her tied to society, and Thelma realizes she never wants to go back to her abusive husband. Through this mutual understanding, the friends realize that all they need is each other, and their flight for freedom is consummated by a literal flight off a cliff.
            Unlike the previous two films, John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy is not the story of two outlaws dodging the police. Rather, it is about two societal outcasts who must turn to each other for survival. Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a lonely, self-described cowboy with a dark past, while Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) is a seedy, greasy street rat with no real connection to anything or anyone. The two are at first enemies after Ratso sets Joe up, but upon their second encounter they begin to realize that neither of them has a thing in the world to cling to, and grow closer because of it. Ratso's disgusting apartment is the staging ground for their desperate attempts to stay afloat in urban New York City society, with Joe trying to prostitute himself, selling blood, hocking items at pawnshops, stealing food, clothing, and eventually money. This last attempt comes at the hands of Joe, who steals enough money after beating a man to try to get Rizzo to Florida, his dream destination. Rizzo is disabled and sickly, and his condition deteriorates throughout the movie. He has no family, friends, or prospects of survival until Joe arrives. Joe's short-lived dream of living the high-life as a gigolo quickly comes crashing down in the tough streets of the city, so he and Rizzo must help each other survive. Rizzo's dream of getting to Florida sustains him long enough for Joe to agree to it, and they hop a bus. Unfortunately, their deviant behavior has distanced them from society, and Rizzo does not even agree to see a doctor because he might lose his dingy apartment. He is not fit to live there, or anywhere, and dies in transit to Florida. Joe is then again left by himself, without a friend in the world and nowhere to go.
            Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thelma and Louise, and Midnight Cowboy all share at least some qualities of the Bandit Buddy genre, providing strong evidence that such a genre has pervaded through time and audience expectations. In each of these films, the characters become very close friends, sustaining them through trying times. These conflicts are brought about by their expulsion from society, either due to disregard for laws or for cultural standards. They try to escape this alienation by attempting to reach a far-off, utopian destination where all their worries will be gone. However, due to their violation of societal standards, they meet their doom together. The main appeal of this set of expectations lies in the ability of an audience to recognize and celebrate close friendships, which last through the best and worst of times. Many characters share a common goal of utopia across almost all genres, be it the Western or musical, only strengthening the acceptability of that belief as another main component of the Bandit Buddy genre. Also, the fact that all of the characters in the Bandit Buddy films face ultimately doomed fates relies on the tendency for movies to emphasize the values of society over the corrupt behaviors of some individuals, who must be punished for unlawful or unacceptable tendencies. The fact that there are so many recurring tendencies within these three Bandit Buddy films illustrates that they can indeed be condensed into a genre, with its own recognizable and inherent characteristics that may be realized by audiences and reproduced by filmmakers many times over.