There’s something about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow that keeps Hollywood coming back for more. From the 1967 classic by Arthur Penn to the 2013 History Channel miniseries, the Bonnie and Clyde story offers audiences a potent mix of violence and celebrity while indulging our resurgent (undying?) appetite for true crime stories. The idea with The Highwaymen, then, is to tell a familiar story from an unfamiliar angle. Instead of following the infamous young couple on their cross-country rampage, we follow Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, a pair of aging Texas Rangers who are reenlisted to hunt down Public Enemies Number One.
Years after the Texas Rangers were disbanded by the Governor’s Office, Hamer (Kevin Costner) has settled into married life. His best friend is a domesticated pig; he hasn’t so much as fired a gun in years. When a Texas official approaches him with an off-the-record proposal — hunt down and execute Bonnie and Clyde with no restrictions or limitations — he immediately enlists the help of Gault (Woody Harrelson), an old Ranger who will exorcize Texas’s demons to try and silence his own. Together, Hamer and Gault chase the Bonnie and Clyde gang halfway the country, inching ever closer to the duo’s infamous and violent death.
The presence of an actor like Costner should imbue The Highwaymen with a level of meta-commentary, but the film elects to play Hamer relatively straight. This is the first of many disappointments. Costner is an actor who has spent his career reimagining the bloody origins of American history; The Highwaymen is as much a showcase for his persona as a cinematic icon as it is a historic retelling of one of Hollywood’s most iconic films. Meanwhile, Harrelson is also operating from a position of strength, playing Gault as a man who uses humor to disguise a conscience that is ill-at-ease. Both actors deliver strong moments in their roles, but it’s the cinematic equivalent of copying characters from your clipboard into a new project; we’ve seen these characters before. They were fine then, and they’re fine now.
Then again, it’s hard to mess up being a middle-aged man in a movie about the American frontier. Good Westerns — and The Highwaymen is very much a Western; motorized vehicles and Depression-era imagery be damned — are often at their best when they drill down into a period of rapid growth in our country’s history. Men like Hamer served as a bridge between two eras: one where a handful of upright citizens were all that stood between order and chaos, and one where the commoditized nature of modern society means it is always for sale. As a result, many of these Westerns take a romanticized approach to the grizzled lawman. In a corrupt and scandal-fueled society, these films suggest, one man’s moral compass might make all the difference in the world.
Some of this is present in The Highwaymen. Costner’s Hamer spends most of the film outraged at the death of law enforcement officers, reminding anyone who expresses mild admiration for Bonnie and Clyde that these are cold-blooded killers. To Hamer, the two celebrities — popular and sympathetic as they may be — are subhuman and deserving of violent deaths. Early in the film, we watch him purchase an entire arsenal of guns, meticulously checking off military-grade weaponry to be used in his hunt. Hamer’s old-school cool also comes through in his examination of the crime scenes, where his instinct for tracking outmatches the combined forensic skills of the entire FBI. They may have the tools and the technology, but decades of experience have taught Hamer how to read a crime scene on instinct alone, often finding the clue others did not even think to look for.
So yes, law enforcement used to be a more noble calling — but there’s another side to The Highwaymen, one that lurks beneath the surface of its genial Costner facade. The film makes it clear — not once, but several times — that Hamer should be the furthest thing from an idealized law enforcement officer. Despite Hamer’s lingering sense of betrayal, Governor Ferguson’s decision to disband the Texas Rangers was seemingly well-received; no characters inside or outside traditional law enforcement seem comfortable with a roving band of gunslingers who served as self-appointed judge, jury, and executioners. Our brief insights into Hamer’s background make it clear that he was a cruel and prejudiced man. His crusade against Bonnie and Clyde seems as much a validation of this approach as an act of justice.
While these two ideas might seem at odds — the nobility of old gunslingers and the atrocities committed by their lawlessness — the film does not seem overly concerned with resolving them, chugging along for nearly two hours without ever committing itself to one read or another of frontier justice. And then the noose tightens around Bonnie and Clyde. One of director John Lee Hancock’s most inspired choices is never to show us Bonnie and Clyde close up. We only ever see their feet or silhouettes as they murder their way across multiple states. This enables their mythology to grow until they become literally larger than life, more icons than people. The film’s finale requires that we watch Bonnie and Clyde die — there can be no story of Hamer without this — and the emotional impact of this final scene is almost worth the bloated content of the rest of the movie. No one, not even Hamer, finds satisfaction in their gratuitous death.
If there’s a common set of issues for most Netflix films, it’s that they tend to be overlong and easily forgotten. There’s nothing in The Highwaymen that suggests this is a movie deserving of buzz. If anything, Netflix has found a way to cut out the middle man and release mediocre films with recognizable actors on a streaming channel (and without any pushback). Here’s to watching The Highwaymen with your parents this holiday season.