It’s indicative of the charm of Johnny Madison Williams that he is the one to set up a meeting between Colin Barnicle, the director of “Carol and Johnny” and Dan Glasser, an FBI agent out of Seattle that had been tasked with tracking him down. The two talk as old friends just meeting having lunch when they end up at a Chinese restaurant after Johnny’s been let out after a 27-year stretch in prison that had been scheduled to go a lot longer and Johnny can tell Dan about what happens to the criminals he’s caught after the fact. You’d never know that Johnny had staged 56 bank robberies, becoming known as the “Shootist” for his proclivity to fire a live round in the air before making his demands, but he has that effect on people of putting them at ease, making his craziest exploits seem as rational as they are to himself.
Barnicle lets Johnny do much of the talking in “Carol and Johnny,” but he relays the footage to his former partner-in-crime Carol Hawkins Williams, who sees things differently than he does after serving a 20-year sentence herself for driving the getaway car. Though the two never got divorced, she’s unsure of a reunion after hearing of Johnny’s release and Barnicle travels back and forth as they live with the consequences of their life together and seem a bit aimless separately. Barnicle is wise not to sensationalize the story or even give all that much attention to the robberies themselves, instead putting together an entertaining Texas tall tale in which the reality of some of Its participants delusions are exposed.
While Johnny sees his whirlwind courtship of Carol as romantic, “11 months out of prison [for him] and 15 months out of high school [for her], which is like being turned loose as a kid in a candy store,” she saw it as a way out of a humdrum life in Dallas, a city she hates with a passion and Barnicle will have the two of them occasionally standing in front of a wall where pictures from their time together are projected onto them, often having one loom large over the other as they reminisce. The effective lo-fi technique is one of many for a story where all the two have nowadays are memories, with Carol frequenting her local American Legion hall for relief from taking care of her aunt after much of her family has disowned her and Johnny is getting restless in the halfway house he’s been relegated to. There might’ve been temptation to turn “Carol and Johnny” into a podcast from the lightly informal tone Barnicle adds to it to the spirited, straightforward interviews he gets with lovely accompaniment from composer Graham Reynolds, but as a film one can see that while the two can say they have no regrets, where they ended up suggests otherwise when they have less control over where they’re sitting than their words.
“Carol and Johnny” comes to mirror its main subjects who make it sound deceptively easy to rob a bank with its own simplicity, but turns out to be every bit as meticulously mapped out as Johnny’s crimes begin to sound less lighthearted in intention than initially portrayed. Just as Johnny’s powers of persuasion wore off for others, the film sees them slowly ebb away before the cameras, never losing his intrigue as a character, but gradually ceding his gravitational pull as a larger-than-life character when “Carol and Johnny” itself gains more and more, ultimately threatening to steal your heart.
“Carol and Johnny” will screen again at Tribeca at the Village East on June 15th at 2:45 pm and June 16th at 8 pm. It will also be available to stream from June 14th at 6 pm through the end of the festival on June 19th.