A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
"Boxcar Bertha" is a weirdly interesting movie and not really the sleazy exploitation film the ads promise. It finds its inspiration in the exploits of Boxcar Bertha Thompson, an outlaw folk hero who operated in Arkansas during the Depression. I am not sure whether she was called "Boxcar" because of the way she was built or because of where she liked to spend her evenings, but I can report that Barbara Hershey, who plays her in the movie, is built like the proverbial structure of brick. For that we can be grateful.
The movie is set in a murky Southern territory of sweat and violence, and gives us Bertha as a forthright young girl who a gets involved in violence almost by accident. She falls in love with a certain Big Bill Shelley (David Carradine), who seems loosely modeled on the anarchist organizer Big Bill Haywood. The two of them meet other friends: Rake Brown, a slick young gambler with a yellow streak, and Von Morton, a sturdy black who wields harmonica and shotgun.
And then their gang is complete and their first murder just sort of happens when Bertha shoots a gambler who is about to shoot Rake. The movie's progression from young love to the most-wanted list reminds us of "Bonnie and Clyde," and I suppose it was meant to. But there's a lot more going on than a remake or rip-off.
I have the notion that Roger Corman, American-International's most successful producer of exploitation films, sent his actors and crew South with the hope of getting a nice, simple, sexy, violent movie for the summer trade. What he got is something else, and something better. Director Martin Scorsese has gone for mood and atmosphere more than for action, and his violence is always blunt and unpleasant -- never liberating and exhilarating, as the New Violence is supposed to be. We get the feeling we're inhabiting the dark night of a soul.