In its nature, the romance driving folklore bends truths, historical or otherwise. While Davy Crockett was a huntsman, he certainly never killed a bear “when he was only three.” Though this pattern can be justified in almost all cases for the sake of entertainment – though in dull times, the longing for excitement could be an alternative goad for exaggeration – it becomes dangerous once the story it tells and the truth it bends is one that perhaps doesn’t deserve glorification. The purpose of The Highwaymen is to disassemble our perception of one such story.
It’s been over 50 years since Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde was released and changed the landscape of American cinema forever. At the time it was an overlooked masterpiece, a film courageous enough to exhibit the violence we as a species are capable of. Director John Lee Hancock introduced his film at SXSW with the story of Gladys Hamer, the widow of one of the two men most responsible for hunting down the real vigilantes and consequently became “the most famous Texas Ranger in history,” Frank Hamer. Gladys decided to sue Warner Bros. the day after she saw the 1967 film for its depiction of her husband. She won the case.
The Highwaymen seeks similar retribution; it tells the story of Hamer (Kevin Costner) and his partner, Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), who sneak out of retirement to end the couple’s years-long crime spree across the Midwest. Their crusade is such an obvious and appealing alternative to one of American cinema’s great cornerstones that it’s amazing to think it took more than 50 years to make. But while Hancock’s film finds its footing with a solid pair of performances, it lacks the narrative sophistication of its predecessor, playing more like an old detective’s tale than an alluring adventure that crosses frontier with justice.
With this film, the director returns to his home state for the first time since 2004’s The Alamo. This one similarly celebrates big, bold Texas patriotism, but because it’s not limited in its location, it also plays out as an ode to the land; cinematographer John Schwartzman beautifully captures the landscapes surrounding the highways where the two conduct their search, and a dust-filled shootout in a field is one of the best sequences of the film.
But the Netflix-produced drama’s goal of glorifying its lawful heroes cannot be complete without demonizing their popular opponents – we’re not allowed forget that despite the incredible bloodshed they caused, the outlaws earned a radiant celebrity across the nation as a pair of contemporary Robin Hood’s – and Hancock makes quick, repeated work of that. Bonnie and Clyde (Emily Brobst and Edward Bossert) remain faceless for the majority of the film, stuck in shadows or observed from afar as they strike down countless officers. The display of carnage, though accurate, is hyperbolized for a film that stretches perhaps too far over the two-hour mark.
During that time, however, Costner and Harrelson shine as the pair of investigators caught in a web of red tape. Their methods are no longer conventional, but duly effective, and their resentment towards the young suits sent from the Bureau can draw a laugh or two – Harrelson, looking up to a plane hovering over a crime scene, calls J. Edgar Hoover a “high flying sissy.”
When the film takes place, Hamer and Gault have already passed their “buddy cop” time – as have the actors playing them. Though they each have contrasting philosophies on the nature of their job – with Costner being more vicious (with a “whatever gets the job” done mentality), and Harrelson more hesitant – they look at their task as nothing more than a judicial necessity and take no pleasure from its completion.
The Highwaymen doesn’t delve much deeper on the psychological atonements of their manhunt, or on anything at all for that matter. Hancock breaks hardly any ground in that department, offering one sappy monologue set around a poker table that details an old nightmare Hamer and Gault share. But despite what it lacks, in a time where we are searching for the true stories behind our fairy tales, The Highwaymen is an effective and pleasing addition.
Though The Highwaymen makes sure it tells the right story about Bonnie and Clyde, it doesn’t win the argument that it tells the better one.