We’ve all seen Bonnie and Clyde. We’ve all seen it, right? Jesus, people. Watch the classics. Fine, go watch Bonnie and Clyde then we can continue on.
Now that we’re all where we should be, remember the bumbling Texas police officer that eventually mowed down our two intrepid anti-heroes, Frank Hamer? Well, he wasn’t actually a bumbling fool, he was a respected Texas Marshall. He and Maney Gault were brought back from retirement just to catch Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. In fact, Hamer’s wife saw the film and sued WB for defamation of character, forcing the studio into a settlement.
As The Highwaymen‘s director, John Lee Hancock, told the audience at SXSW this movie is here to set the record straight and tell the true story of the men who finally caught and killed Bonnie and Clyde. That may be its goal but that doesn’t make it a better story.
Director: John Lee Hancock
Release Date: March 10, 2019 (Netflix)
We’re presented with Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), the two ex-Texas Rangers selected to track down Bonnie and Clyde after the FBI and police forces across multiple states failed to do so. Now that we’ve all watched Bonnie and Clyde we all know how this film will end but the point here is to see the story from the other side. So, after a bit of reluctance, Hamer accepts the task, and he and Gault hit the road after the duo, going up against cocky Feds and inept local policing as they do. The movie is mostly them sitting in a car or restaurant discussing how to get closer to their prey and sometimes being wistful about the good ol’ days of being a Texas Ranger, all in an attempt to justify their later actions.
Here’s the big thing, the movie is just as much a glorification of Hamer and the Texas Marshalls as its predecessor was of Bonnie and Clyde. There’s a slavish commitment to representing Hamer in the best light, which in turn means we don’t actually get to see him in the best light. Because we spend so much time unpacking and excusing the man we don’t get to see him work at solving the case all that much. There are some fantastic scenes, including one heavily dramatized version of a conversation between Hamer and Clyde’s father that works dramatically but feel false. The movie is so concerned with setting the record straight, and explaining why law enforcement shot hundreds of rounds into the duo, that it loses its most interesting thread: the actual tracking of Bonnie and Clyde.
This isn’t to say that the glorification of Bonnie and Clyde was a good thing. Their celebrity is something the film tries to comment on, but once again misses the mark thanks to its commitment to our two highwaymen. The more interesting theme of the American public going crazy over two cold-blooded murderers and why they were so popular is left in the proverbial dust fields that littered the highways in those days. Hancock is so disinterested in both Bonnie and Clyde that he doesn’t show their faces until the end of the film, a bit of trick filmmaking that doesn’t derive the payoff he really wants. A too obvious attempt to inform us that this story isn’t about Bonnie and Clyde that fails because it still is in so many ways.
At one point Gault describes a massacre that the Texas Rangers committed upon a gang of outlaws, breaking the law themselves in many ways to serve “justice.” It’s not delivered as a heroic story, but as a sobering one. But the movie is constructed so that this story comes near the very end, far too close to the conclusion to actually change the tone. Little scenes about guilt and regret litter the film here or there in vain attempts to flesh out our heroes but it’s clear that the film as a whole is just the same type of glorification that Bonnie and Clyde committed itself.
Except, Bonnie and Clyde was a better movie with a better story. Romantic lovers on the run, fighting the system that forced them into that life? It’s an American story through and through. This isn’t to directly compare one film to the other but to say that The Highwaymen just isn’t anything special. It’s a competently made film that just kind of rests on its laurels for most of the time. Its story feels like nothing more than an episode of Law and Order with more guns. It is the kind of movie that you would have expected on Netflix before they started to tackle more challenging films, and that might make it great for a night in, but on the big screen it just feels like its not quite enough. A made-for-TV rebuttal to a piece of art that will be engrained in society forever.
Harrelson and Costner aren’t bad in the film, but they each seem to be playing themselves more than anything else. I wouldn’t say this movie particularly challenges either of the actors in any way, though their chemistry together definitely helps elevate what would-be clunky scenes. Again, they’re not really given enough to do on the whole, especially Harrelson, whose character is mostly relegated to taking swigs from a flask as he bumbles along behind Costner. That’s an irony considering the issues Hamer’s family had with Bonnie and Clyde, and also a storyline that never pays off into anything as Hamer is focused on almost entirely for character development.
The Highwaymen has a plethora of issues but that doesn’t make it a terrible film in the end. While it misses out on its potential it can still be an interesting look at the other side of a story that has fascinated America to this day. It’s not boring, but it’s never truly interesting. The movie may not want us to even glimpse Bonnie and Clyde, denying us their celebrity, but unfortunately, the falsehood is the more interesting story.