In 1967, director Arthur Penn unleashed Bonnie and Clyde upon the world — an incendiary, idiosyncratically violent vision of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. These romantically linked robbers and murderers rampaged the South for two years during the Great Depression. Their spree drew the consternation of law enforcement (of whose brethren they were known to kill nine) and affection from America’s downtrodden, who mistakenly believed them to be Robin Hood do-gooders even as they robbed the sorts of mom-and-pop stores on which their fans were either relying or running themselves.
With the easy-eyed casting of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in the titular roles, Penn reflected Parker and Barrow’s pin-up presence during their spree. Some critics’ interpretations of this as the film’s glorification of its criminals’ blood-soaked actions initiated a personnel changeover from outlets who sought not to be seen as unhip. Indeed, Penn’s film represented nothing less than a full-blown prescription change to Hollywood’s myopic vision of violence and vigilantes — a liberation both for experts in the blood-squib industry and a legion of filmmakers who saw a future in its fulminations.
Director John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen — which begins streaming Friday on Netflix after a limited theatrical release — seeks to counterbalance that film’s cacophonous charge by examining the other side of this savage American equation.
Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) were former Texas Rangers reluctantly tasked by Texas Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) to beat Barrow and Parker at their own game. The outlaws had established a seemingly unceasing eddy of bloodshed on the outskirts of several states, creating a jurisdictional quagmire for anyone trying to catch them within the rule of law. Hamer and Gault were accustomed to working outside such restrictions and eventually instigated a Louisiana ambush during which a posse pumped 130 rounds into Barrow, Parker and their Ford V8 — the guns so loud the men suffered temporary deafness.
Hancock’s film occasionally hits a sweet spot of rural desperation that has been his strongest forté — blending the nihilism of A Perfect World (his breakthrough script, also starring Costner) and the detail of The Rookie after a detour into rote biopics like The Founder or (ugh) The Blind Side. Instead, The Highwaymen unfolds along a smudged frontier of prosperity, civility and dignity — so many shantytowns, slums and small-town hovels dotting a nation with nothing doing. Barrow and Parker were just two of many people who threw their lives and dreams in a jalopy to hit the road for nowhere good, per se, but just different. It’s certainly Hancock’s handsomest film, reuniting with cinematographer John Schwartzman (his collaborator on The Rookie) and enlisting his longtime production designer Michael Corenblith for work that is nothing short of immaculate.
An unexpected run-in with Barrow and Parker in a small Kansas town — and a subsequent car chase — finds The Highwaymen at its most exciting and electrically insightful. The scene ends on a beautiful shot of vehicular donuts covering a dust field that seems to stretch on into forever, a better underline on the film’s ideas of a futile pursuit for “clean” justice than any of the fusty diatribes found in the Grumpy Old Lawmen script by John Fusco. While Fusco at least endeavors a meatier look at taking down legendary outlaws than in his Young Guns movies, The Highwaymen unnecessarily dawdles its way across 131 minutes. It lacks any distinct oomph of its contemporary analogs — the magnetism or magnitude of Public Enemies, the sheer animalistic energy of Lawless, the surprise casting of Road to Perdition.
On that last score, you get exactly what you expect from Costner and Harrelson; they are, respectively, taciturn and talkative. That they could easily switch personalities speaks to the actors’ range. That no one thought to consider it speaks to The Highwaymen’s comfort camping out in the middle lane. Costner and Harrelson are, of course, fine in allegorical Western territory, trading their horses for more reliable horsepower but no less lonesome on the prairie and in constant fear of being outmoded. They’ve covered that terrain and know it well.
Costner and Harrelson are best when they comically contemplate confounding advances that must have felt like science-fiction notions at the time — Gault’s mind blown by the idea of a wiretap and Hamer regarding an automatic weapon as though it were a laser rifle from the year 2032. An inherent classist conflict between Hamer and Gault also comes to a boil late in the film — the former having married well after forced retirement, the former having taken malaise as his mistress — but it feels like one of many footnotes in Fusco’s script. (Bates, playing Texas’s first female governor, turns up every 20 minutes to throw a fit of perturbation over the pair’s draconian methods. It has been oh so very long since Bates got a role reflective of her talent.)
In moments too few and far between, The Highwaymen mulls the appeal of violence in a desperate America, both in the era during which it’s set and as an enduring notion. One scene in which a Barrow ally puffs his chest with an armchair-badass bluff that Hamer and Gault call resonates with today’s cry-wolf, hate-stoking arguments about “economic anxiety.” And the film closes on a ghoulish image — a sort of state funeral for scoundrels reflective of our morbid fascination to rubberneck tragedy and bear witness for stories to tell. However lushly photographed it might be, The Highwaymen still takes too scenic a route to get there.