Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid arrived at a perfect time. For a film about the Wild West’s inevitable demise and fleeing to escape it to be placed at the tail end of the Western movie’s dominance and the dawn of the New Hollywood era is both prescient and obvious.
It is obsessed with the passage of time from the get go, ornamenting its credits with a sepia tone, silent train robbery and then continuing into the film itself with a sepia toned, laconic showdown. We’re introduced to the affable Butch and the deadeye, deadpan Sundance Kid in a fashion suited uniquely to a Western. As we leave the saloon and are acquainted with the grand expanse, color drizzles into the frame seamlessly. Within the first few minutes we’ve been in three separate films, seemingly from three different eras but all distinctly Western. The scene of Butch snuffing out an uprising establishes him as a sincere but subversive protagonist. His earnest expression and humor differentiates him from the stoic leading man previously guaranteed. The robberies are even more fun. While the romance between Sundance and Etta gets off on strong feet, a bike ride set to “Raindrops Falling on my Head” is distractingly playful and modern.
The endlessly approaching gang of lawmen are able to salvage this tonal shift and produce a dread that cuts right through the jokiness of our protagonists. The chase is long, tedious, and epic, and ends with a cliff jump into a river and an agreement to head for Bolivia. The consequence of the chase is now seen in the pacing; watching bank robberies after all the high stakes action behind it should yield some kind of nostalgic pleasure in seeing our outlaw buddies get back to basics (with the addition of Sundance’s girlfriend), but instead feels stationary. The structure of the plot is rather interesting and sparse, but while the humor does revitalize the well traversed setting, it is also at odds with the dread and slow decline, causing it to move at an uncomfortable pace. When Butch and Sundance get in over their heads and finally fall into an unwinnable showdown, they are entirely confident, because it isn’t the famously tough lawmen they’re on the run from. The film falls victim to the same fate. It escapes the expectations and legacy of the Western and is dazzlingly exciting while doing so, but a combination of an unconventional plot and ill-suited humor are its downfall in structure. That said, even the worst paced parts of the movie are incredibly well done; the ‘going straight’ scene is a wonderful aside that straddles the line of bleak and black humor. Redford and Newman are great enough to make it worth a watch, and interesting decisions that don’t totally land are always better than safe ones.