“A particularly workmanlike brand of stuffiness.”
by Ken Bakely
There’s a conceptual burden that John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen needs to address as soon as it starts. The very idea of making a movie engaging with the mythology surrounding Bonnie and Clyde, and focusing on the two lawmen – former Texas Rangers Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) – who track down and eventually lead the ambush that kills them, is a strange proposition. By choosing this path, the film automatically takes the perpetual fascination that surrounds its source material and moves it to a deconstruction of such iconography. It has to be a work of careful revisionism at a very basic level. The movie is cognizant of this on some elemental level, but it doesn’t follow through in confronting the difficulties it faces in trying to convince the audience to care about the individuals on the other side of this story. Beyond impressive period production values and Costner and Harrelson’s considered performances, there’s no heft to Frank and Maney as characters. They operate as blank proxies for a half-baked crime tale that never grapples with the larger themes and implications in play as a result of its chosen perspective. Everything combines and forms into a particularly workmanlike brand of stuffiness, attempting to glorify the life and work of these two men without ever explaining what’s so noteworthy about them, and what makes them as worthy of cinematic treatment as their legendary targets.
Though John Fusco’s script ensures that Costner and Harrelson’s characters get the last onscreen words, it does so with the same presumptuous nature that has rendered it such a mediocre work to begin with: only surface-level examinations are on display here, a problem that persists pretty consistently from the start. In act one, Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) calls Frank and Maney into service to lead the investigation. They leave quiet retirements and their mostly silent families, and share alternating quiet moments and cool, tough-guy confrontations with whatever altercations await them along the way, with Frank’s sour aggression contrasted against Maney’s more eccentric style. While Harrelson and Costner’s chemistry is as good as one would expect, they’re not in a position to expand their performances beyond momentary positives. This is a movie far too staid for that. It has immense nostalgia for the crime films of past decades, but instead of building upon the cultural context necessary to view those movies today, it simply imitates emotional distance without investigating it. To cover that gap, it wants to have its cake and eat it, leaning on the inherent draw of Bonnie and Clyde while chastising the audience for having such a perpetual infatuation with two killers. For however much it pays tribute to the tireless work by the seasoned officers searching for them, Hancock’s immediate follow-up to the slow-motion shootout is a depiction of a crowd of hundreds mourning over Barrow and Parker’s bodies as their remains are transported into a nearby town. The movie also painstakingly reports the funeral attendance for their respective memorial services in two separate title cards, alongside archival footage of the events.
Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde owes its status as an enduring classic to the notion that it’s a movie imminently of the era in which it was made and its respective filmmaking moment, while The Highwaymen stumbles around in search for the past, without knowing what to do if it gets there. We’re not worse off for having seen it, and there are enough assets in its favor to make those sporadic moments of true engagement – whether they be performance-based or part of the well-paced climax – work for all they’re worth. But for all that Hancock promises in his efforts to turn our traditional cultural enamoring of Bonnie and Clyde on its head, all we’re left with is a reaffirmation that while society tends to make bad choices in who they glorify, it’s pretty consistent in choosing the most interesting story as the subject of their uncritical adoration. There’s no doubt that a more engaging film could be made about Frank Hamer and Maney Gault. However, it would have to be one that understands that it would have to separate the two from the strictures of law enforcement as an entity to be compelling; that is, nobody cares about the specific cops who killed Bonnie and Clyde, but pulling back and reconciling that against the nuances and flaws of Hamer and Gault as human beings would add the necessary perspective to make their story an antidote to the blind hero worship The Highwaymen ostensibly disdains. This movie ends up trading one shallow view for another, and its stodgy traditionalism blocks up deeper subversion in either its script and filmmaking. It feels like a relic for all the wrong reasons.