Whether celebrated for their hardheaded individualism or admired from a distance as flawed anti-heroes, the idea of the outlaw has long fascinated filmmakers. The outlaw acts on what we can only imagine, making them an agent for the fierceness of desire and the harshness of self-destruction. The more that they've been examined by the movies – measured in close-up, watched as disappear towards the horizon – the more that the form of the outlaw has diversified, telling us not just about a Robin Hood or a Jesse James, but the people who build nations or destroy families.
See screening schedule below
Running through October, a season of films on SBS offer a fascinatingly nuanced overview of just how far the outlaw archetype stretches before it snaps. The protagonists in these films – The Baader Meinhof Complex (Saturday 1 October), Public Enemy #1 (part one on Saturday 8 October, part two on Saturday 15 October), Bronson (Saturday 22 October) and Hunger (Saturday 29 October) – are divided by intent and locale, faith and ideology; they're as much fugitives from themselves as the law.
The one that adheres closest to the traditional outlaw mythology is the two part Public Enemy #1, an epic recreation of the violent life led by French bank robber Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) over a two decade long period in his homeland and Canada. Director Jean-Francois Richet gives us the criminal as charismatic loner – “No-one kills me 'til I say so,” swears Mesrine, a Parisian who embraces crime after serving in Algeria with the French army in the late 1950s. Like Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, the movie shows us Mesrine's seduction, with a corrupt mentor (Gerard Depardieu) and a gradual separation from any anchors of self-control.
Mesrine made a habit of breaking out of jails – and at one point trying to break in to free Canadian political prisoners – and robbing more than one bank at a time, and as his notoriety grew so did his conscious identification with himself as a lead character. In the 1970s he would seek out the headlines, complaining when the Chilean coup takes him off the front pages. The movies aren't just drawn to outlaws, outlaws are drawn to the movies. They see themselves as stars of their own stories, romanticising a bloody finale that can only end one way.
Whether mocking police or stealing from organised crime cartels, Mesrine sees himself as a foe of organisation structures, but in Nicholas Winding Refn's Bronson, a fictionalised account of the man dubbed “the most violent prisoner in Britain”, Tom Hardy's Michael Peterson (he assumed Charles Bronson as his underground fight name) sees institutions as a means of advancing himself. Bullish of frame, possessed of violent, reductive reasoning, Bronson loves prison. “It was madness at its very best,” he declares as he marches through the corridors like a Churchillian hero, attacking guards so often that his sentence is extended out to 34 years, 30 of which are spent in solitary.
Corrosively stylised, with a soundtrack of electronic pop hits and the format of Bronson onstage in a one man show to highlight his separation from the real world, the movie is a black comedy about how the idea of being caged, of being imprisoned, focuses its destructive hero. The film bears trace elements of Andrew Dominik's Chopper, but Refn (maker of the Pusher trilogy) allows the character to take the idea of the outlaw to surreal extremes. Bronson isn't interested in rebelling or staking his own claim, he just believes that he should be celebrated for doing what he does best: the brutal application of violence. Amongst people he doesn't consider part of his world – women, flamboyantly gay men – he's just a hardened shell placidly waiting for the signal only he can hear.
In Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex, the riveting account of how the left wing terrorist group the Red Army Faction tried to bring West Germany to its knees in the 1970s, the traditional notion of the outlaw meets the modern, politically fluid version. As played with narcissistic disdain by Moritz Bleibtrau, Andreas Baader was a petty criminal who found a means to express his fantasies in the generation of young Germans politicised by the Vietnam War and their latent guilt over the country's recent Nazi past. Ideology is second to action for Baader, who discovered his mirror in the radical Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), his lover and enabler.
Planting bombs and targeting judges, the young radicals (who helped created the psychogeography of punk rock) become an inspiration for a group of successors, who take up their cause even as the likes of Baader, Ensslin and the group's theorist, former journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), are imprisoned. Viewed as outlaws by their followers, the clique discovers that their mystique has overwhelmed their intentions. Their legend is stronger than their deeds and eventually they can only acquiesce to the belief that the outlaw must break through or perish.
Hunger, the magisterial debut feature by English visual artist Steve McQueen, is also set in a jail, specifically Northern Ireland's Maze prison during the hunger strikes by members of the Irish Republican Army in 1981, but there defiance is a regressive act, moving from a prison, into a cell, and finally into the individual body. Using striking tableaus that have unsettling connotations, you see how the institute negates the individual's acts of rebellion and in turn seeks to break their will. In such an environment even a haircut becomes a ritualistic battle, with McQueen showing how the guards must also abandon their individuality to emotionally survive.
The movie's centre-piece is a 22 minute conversation, a back and forth dialogue between an inmate, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), willing to die, and a Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) determined to persuade him otherwise. From that turning point, Hunger moves towards the 66 days Sands spent slowly wasting away, leaving behind the cells filled with excrement and rotting food for an otherworldly hospital ward where orderlies build a frame over his emaciated body because it cannot even support the bed clothes.
McQueen, like Refn, Richet and Edel, shows how the outlaw ultimately does not transform the world they challenge, but themselves. It's the cinema that remembers them, that makes something lasting out of how the individual confronts society, but the romance and swagger can only ever culminate in tragedy.
Saturday Oct 1, 10:20pm
The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)
Director: Uli Edel
Starring: Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Jan Josef Liefers
Saturday Oct 8 & 15, 10:20pm
Public Enemy #1 (2008)
Director: Jean-François Richet
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Ludivine Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric
Saturday Oct 22, 10:20pm
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Tom Hardy, Matt King, Kelly Adams
Saturday Oct 29, 10:20pm
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham