Film Review: The Highwaymen (2019)
There is a playfulness to the classic 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, which boasts the tagline “They’re young…they’re in love…and they kill people.” The story of two of the most notorious gangsters in history navigates their dual identity as killers and pop culture icons by presenting their undeniable charm alongside their unapologetic actions. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway helped to immortalize them to an entirely new generation in Arthur Penn’s superb film, and in Netflix’s visit back to their time, they’re relegated to minor roles played by actors with backgrounds almost entirely in stunt work.
The Highwaymen features Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), two former Texas Rangers tasked with hunting down Bonnie and Clyde and putting an end to their murderous spree. These two old-timers might be the right men for the job, but they don’t get much cooperation from anyone else as they trail the criminal couple. Texas Governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) takes some convincing to authorize their appointment from Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch), the head of the Texas Department of Corrections, who is just about the only person who believes in the unlikely duo of onetime hotshots.
This is a recognizably standard crime film that feels appropriately dated, with its protagonists seeming out of touch with their own time. Gault in particular expresses disbelief at the notion of G-Men “hooking into party lines” and conducting wiretaps, looking north to a plane flying overhead in the same way a modern-day older adult would curse cell phones or some other advanced technology. Describing himself to Hamer as “above ground and ready to go,” Gault proves to be more than capable of standing his ground when he is cornered in a bathroom by a group of attackers and handily disposes of all of them. Hamer is very willing to engage in roughing up those who refuse to cooperate with his questions, expressing no patience for anyone who would help to put officers of the law or innocent people in harm’s way by obstructing his definition of justice.
This film’s title references the charge of its protagonists, which is to patrol the Texas highways for signs of the elusive killers. Their jurisdiction stops at the border, though that doesn’t stop Hamer from plowing past a barricade of police officers to follow a lead into Oklahoma. Framing their hunt from the vantage point of a car window helps to heighten the experience of scoping out suspicious activity. Their car is their investigative office, and they’re going to make their own rules as a result. A car chase scene through the dusty Midwest manages to be thrilling and feels just right in this muted, gloomy environment, assisted by a slow, melodic score.
Costner and Harrelson are strong choices to play these characters. Costner currently stars on the Paramount TV series Yellowstone as a rancher managing his property through his own version of law and order, and among his most famous roles are those of federal agent Eliot Ness in The Untouchables and district attorney Jim Garrison in JFK. Harrelson was nominated for an Oscar in 2017 for playing a tortured sheriff in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and here he brings his signature wit and smirk to play opposite Costner’s straight man. This may not be the role of either of their careers, but they’re smart and satisfactory picks.
What ultimately stands out most in this portrayal of the men who brought down Bonnie and Clyde is the degree to which they traveled an uphill path to get there. Aging and getting no help from cockier law enforcement agents are among the least of their problems. Early in the film, Gault expresses his reservations both about killing a woman and shooting a man without fair warning even though they know that their targets would have no qualms about doing either. Bonnie and Clyde were superstars, representing an incomparable youthful excitement to the masses that two relics of the past just wanted to put to an end. Going up against criminals without morals and with unbelievable public support was their greatest challenge of all.
*lead image courtesy of Netflix