The Zen of Outlaw Movies

Bonnie and Clyde movie poster
Ingrid and I were watching Bonnie and Clyde tonight, which she had never seen and I hadn’t seen in years. It struck me, watching it again, that, despite all the violence, in some ways it’s a very Zen movie. And it occurred to me that there’s a similar Zen quality to lots of outlaw movies. Especially “outlaws on the run” movies. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Thelma & Louise.

There’s a particular scene that especially made me think this: a scene late-ish in the movie, when it’s become clear that the law is going to catch up with them. Bonnie says something to Clyde about how at first she thought they were going somewhere, she thought they had some destination… but now she realized that all they were ever going to do was run. She didn’t say “run until we die,” but that was the clear implication. A lot of “outlaws on the run” movies have a similar vibe, a similar moment in the story where the audience realizes (even if the characters don’t) that the outlaws aren’t going to make it: the law is closing in on them, and they’re doomed.

And it struck me that this is sort of a secular Zen metaphor for life. Ultimately, none of us is going anywhere. Ultimately, we have no destination. Ultimately, the law is going to catch up with us. If we’re not bank robbers, it probably won’t be cops with machine guns who are catching up with us: it’ll just be the law of entropy, and the laws of biology. But the law is closing in on us. Ultimately, we’re all just running. And running is all we have.

It’s sort of like that koan about the man and the tigers and the strawberry. The one where the man is running from a tiger, trying to escape, and grabs onto a vine and jumps off a cliff. But another tiger is at the bottom of the cliff, waiting to eat him. Two mice start chewing on the vine. Then the man sees a strawberry, plucks it, and eats it. How sweet it tasted.

Not sure where I’m going with this. Nowhere, I guess. Good movie, though. And the strawberries sure are sweet.

The Zen of Outlaw Movies
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18 thoughts on “The Zen of Outlaw Movies

  1. 2

    Not sure where I’m going with this. Nowhere, I guess.

    I especially like those posts of yours where the above could serve as the motto 🙂

    the law is closing in on us. Ultimately, we’re all just running. And running is all we have.

    Sounds almost like a quote from Kafka, doesn’t it? It made me also thinking about this beautiful, famous inscription from Fatehpur Sikri:

    The world is a bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the world endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.

    I know it’s Muslim, not Zen (how horrible!), but here are some loose reflections. Which are going nowhere of course, but who cares!

    Admittedly, the last quote doesn’t sound so “secular” as the zen koan, but in both cases I find the outlook deeply similar. It’s religion showing its most desperate, and at the same time the most human aspect. Build no houses, the stability you seem to enjoy is an illusion. Don’t hope for eternity – you can’t even hope for a day. You are an outlaw indeed! This leaves just a very, very small step to “and running is all we have”. Such a step is not taken, since we have prayer. But “the rest is unseen”, including the second side of the bridge (if any), which gives an air of desperation even to the prayer. Grim enough to be likeable and somehow … adequate, don’t you think so?

    In one respect the picture here is even more grim than the one from the koan: no strawberries! Hmmm … unless you think of the prayer as strawberries, of course. (“To sit in the synagogue and pray (…) several hours every day, that would be the sweetest thing of all” – remember?)

  2. 3

    That’s pretty cool Greta! What do you think of the reversal of that theme that Oliver Stone and Tarantino pull in “Natural Born Killers”, wherein the outlaw duo scoff at such Zen notions and in the end escape their fate?

  3. 7

    The concept has been exxpressed in many ways by many people and called by many names – zen, existententalism, or absurdism. I’m kinda partial to Camus and prefer the latter.

  4. 9

    I think a lot of the depression-era ‘gangsters,’ –not real gangsters a la Capone-Luciano-Maranzano and co. but the ones Hoover was willing to acknowledge like Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the Barrows–were on a sort of suicide mission against their society.

    This rage and perceived helplessness in the face of economic and political circumstances may have more in common with Tim McVeigh and the Tea Party than it is comfortable to think about.

  5. 10

    Just to clarify: I’m not talking about the historical figures Bonnie and Clyde. I’m talking about the movie “Bonnie and Clyde.” Not the those characters were exactly Zen masters, what with the murdering and all…

  6. 13

    A side effect of being an atheist is that I’m also a hedonist. We only have the one life, better have fun now since it’s not going to happen later.
    There is a trick though, you have to know what actually makes you happy. If you’d asked the historical me what would make me happy, I’d have been about 60% right. I had to try a bunch of things and then ask myself afterwards if my happiness increased or not. Happiness is an empirical question.

  7. 14

    A reworked poem for your consideration:

    When I come to the end of the road
    And the shadows are on the ground,
    I want no tears in a gloom-filled room,
    Why cry for a life unbound?

    Miss me a little – But not for long
    And not with your head bowed low,
    Remember the love that we once shared,
    Miss me – But let me go.

    For this is a journey we all must take,
    And each must go alone,
    There’s no purpose nor a master plan,
    Just people you have known.

    When you are lonely and sick of heart
    Go to your friends that we know,
    And bury your sorrows in doing good works,
    Miss me – But let me go.

  8. 16


    You are more than welcome. I heard the original at my Uncle’s funeral last week and the line ‘Miss me – But let me go’ really made an impression. You can google for the original, but my thoughts were ‘Why should the religious get all the good farewells?’

  9. 17

    “If you see only life then you will miss. See death hidden everywhere in life! And if you can see that death is hiding in life, then you can see the reverse also: that in death life is hidden…

    “What will you do if you see hate hidden in love? If you see love hidden in hate, what will you choose then? Choice will become impossible, because if you see, ‘I choose love,’ you also see you are choosing hate. And how can a lover choose hate?

    “You can choose because the hate is not apparent to you. You had chosen love, and then you think by some accident hate has happened. But the moment you choose love, you have chosen hate. The moment you cling to life, you are clinging to death. Nobody wants to die — then don’t cling to life, because life is leading towards death.”


  10. im

    No, I will not ever submit
    To fade and fail beneath the ancient trees
    And close a sacred loop
    Which did never ask my consent
    for the tradgedies of a natural life.

    Go, my sons, and disdain the faith
    That encourages beyond all odds
    For all your lives I have taught you
    To have your hope from outer strength
    And live your lives like throwers of loaded dice

    Anoint my body with such unguents
    As I have designed
    To preserve a soul in mortal flesh
    And lay over me ancient lead and tungsten
    That no spark or sun may ever harm me

    For the one with the power to vanquish death approaches!
    Born of the will that defends and creates!
    Born of Humankind’s fear and woe
    Built by the knowledge of matter’s ways
    Made of common stuff, most wisely formed

    I did not yet truly die
    But merely suffered a great injury.
    Now I am laid low, to sleep
    The sleep of men and women
    Who respect their own science which creates and rebuilds

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