What if Bonnie and Clyde were just a couple of murderous psychos, and the lawmen who emptied 130 rounds into them were the real heroes? Broadly speaking, that’s the thesis presented by John Lee Hancock’s new Netflix film The Highwaymen, which follows two aging Texas Rangers who are dragged out of retirement to pursue the elusive, deadly lovers across the Central United States during the Great Depression. But the picture works best, perhaps, as an opportunity to spend some time with the grizzled duo of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, who step into their roles as these “has-been vaqueros” with comfort and familiarity.
Like all elegiac pseudo-Western characters, these two have found themselves in quite different circumstances in their twilight years. When he’s first approached about going after the killers, the stoic, precise Frank Hamer (Costner) is living a seemingly comfortable retirement thanks to a stint working security for oil companies; by contrast, his former compadre Maney Gault (Harrelson) is jobless and humiliated by the burden he’s causing for his struggling daughter’s family. Gault needs the work, but Hamer takes him on because the rest of their old crew is dead.
Their quarries are the infamous deputy-killing, bank- and gas-station-robbing duo of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, two star-crossed 20-somethings who fused Depression era picture-show glamour with the class resentment borne of economic collapse. They became folk heroes at the time, and have remained so over the years, thanks in part to Arthur Penn’s brilliantly violent 1967 hit Bonnie and Clyde, a studio movie that was adopted by the era’s youth culture. Hancock doesn’t really try to convince us that Bonnie and Clyde were villains; he treats it as a given, barely ever showing them and allowing their absence to enhance their menace. When we do catch a glimpse of the doomed, gun-crazy lovers, we almost never see their faces; they’re shot from a distance, elusive and ghostly. Even Bonnie’s limp feels less like a sign of vulnerability and more like a serial killer’s trademark strut.
Despite such elements, this isn’t exactly a thriller. It’s more a laconic road movie, with Hamer and Gault making for intriguingly terse companions. We like watching them, which is good, because neither is particularly chatty; Hamer is stoic and focused, while Gault is a mess, a broken alcoholic desperate not to screw up his newfound gig. On the rare occasion when they do open up, it’s to others: Hamer has a brief, unsettling confrontation with Clyde’s father (played by the great William Sadler), in which he recalls how he got started early on being a lawman, and Gault has a gripping late monologue about a ghastly incident from his years as a Ranger that haunts him to this day.
Well-acted and somber, The Highwaymen feels at times like a movie designed to embody the restrained, unforthcoming nature of its heroes. And if it seems a little old fashioned and out of step, that’s at least partly intentional: Gault and Hamer’s outdated and questionable methods of law enforcement are on the way out, thanks to the rapid centralization and technological development of the modern surveillance state. But these men can be effective, too, even as they’re befuddled by new procedures. Hamer is able to accomplish forensic wonders with just a couple of glances, while Gault expresses bewilderment at the new fingerprinting and analysis techniques being used by the cops.
There is an idea here, but I wish Hancock had done more with it. It was hard at times not to be reminded of Michael Mann’s significantly more detailed and dense (and, in my mind, superior) John Dillinger drama Public Enemies, which showed a charismatic, old-school outlaw being slowly cornered by a growing law-enforcement apparatus on one hand, and an increasingly connected mob network on the other. The film also occasionally recalls another superior work, Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World, which John Lee Hancock actually wrote (and which also starred Costner, this time as the outlaw on the run). The Highwaymen never quite manages to conjure a changing world, and as a result its more interesting ideas are left blowing in the wind. But as an excuse to spend some time with Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson doing what Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson do, it’ll do just fine.