“The Highwaymen” is a sturdy, slow and stately Western about the hunt for Bonnie & Clyde and the two retired, out-of-date Texas Rangers who birddogged them through the Dust Bowl.
It’s a picture that comes down squarely on the law’s side, de-mythologizing the outlaws, the cult of celebrity and America’s tendency to fall for the wrong sorts of “heroes.” Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow’s twelve “official” victims were all but ignored by the public at the time and forgotten by history.
As such, “Highwaymen” is a “cop, judge and jury” Old West Western, admiring the ruthless methods of the past, lightly mocking the “soft” female governor of Texas in 1934 for not approving of them.
And it’s trigger happy, all but fetishizing the firearms that the Barrow Gang and those who pursued them hefted — BARs and Colts and Thompson submachine guns, which gives it an out-of-step-with-our-times feel.
But it strips away the cute, almost ignoring the perpetrators themselves– seen at their most cold-blooded. “Highwaymen” is just about the pursuit of them, the hunters and the people who helped the killers — fans — and their kin, who both understood that “wrong turn in the trail” that changed them, and the need for them to be, as the lawmen said, “to be put down.”
The film doesn’t have the pacing of a theatrical release — it’s “streaming slow,” sluggish at times. Director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “The Alamo”) doesn’t so much coast on his own reputation as those of his two formidable, grizzled and manly leading men — Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, playing Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, Texas Rangers in an era when the Rangers had been disbanded, disapproved of by Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates), the first female governor of Texas.
“If they make’a fool’a me, there’s gonna be HELL to pay!”
She’d rather her new-fangled state police, working with the new-ish F.B.I., using the law and forensics, track down the robbers and killers who’d become folk heroes to Depression Era America.
But the menfolk knew better, which is why Marshal Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) tracks down the married well and retired Frank (Costner), who in turn — eventually — seeks out his old partner, Maney.
There are grace notes in the introductions — Costner’s Hamer getting young farmhands to throw bottles that he no longer has the speed or the eye to shoot in mid air.
“Pity’s sake. I’m a goddamned old man!”
Maney (Harrelson) is broke, living with his daughter’s family on a farm in foreclosure, and Frank seems reluctant to offer him the job. Frank runs down a list of other retired Rangers he’d be better off with, men “further down the roster.”
“That’s honest. Too honest.”
The script by John Fusco (“Hidalgo,” “The Founder,””Saving Mister Banks”) fights the urge to make this a buddy picture, from that final invitation, “Judas Priest, get in. No singin’.” to Maney’s constant trips to the toilet to jibes about each other’s shooting or driving.
He wrote each man a fine soliloquy, about violence, their own “one turn on the trail” that put them in the business of hunting down and killing “cold blooded killers who’re more adored than movie stars,” or as Maney calls them, “that jackass and his girlfriend.”
They violate jurisdictions and drive all over the region, chasing their quarry, second-guessing them, stumbling into them.
And they get an earful about what “heroes” the Barrow Gang are.
“They only takin’ from the banks. They ain’t takin’ from the poor folk, like me.”
The film may be a blend of truth and fiction, but that’s one thing it gets absolutely right.
The press of the day was both appalled by and enamored of these two, turning Bonnie into a beret-wearing fashion icon long before Faye Dunaway played her that was in the ’60s. They’d write letters to the editor, get self-mythologizing poems published in magazines.
“Used to be, had to have talent to get published,” Maney drawls.”Now, all you have to do is shoot people.”
All these two see is their violence — coldblooded, sadistic. They have to use their instincts to get ahead of them, staking out Bonnie’s family home in “The Devil’s Back Porch” part of West Dallas.
“Outlaws and mustangs…always come home.”
Hancock shows us the Hoovervilles that littered the impoverished Southern landscape, and takes a stab at giving the picture the proper Dust Bowl grit. Everybody still looks too clean, the vintage cars (generally) too well-cared for, the roads too modern, the paved sidewalks showing through even in the poorest neighborhoods of the day.
Costner’s hoarse growl is put to good use, as is Woody’s innate folksiness. The casting is “on-the-nose,” as we say, two very good actors with great rapport playing a bit too far within their comfort zone, but getting the job done.
William Sadler makes the most of one scene, playing Clyde’s half-sympathetic daddy. Bates doesn’t have enough to play, and Ma’s reputation is tarnished with cracks about “100 pardoned convicts a day” and the like. She’s having her history man-splained by a screenwriter who probably isn’t giving her what’s due.
The picture’s only serious drawback is its pacing, that “streaming slow” remark I made earlier. Starting the story with a prison break and taking us to the final hail of bullets suggests something more compact is about to unfold. Nope. Two hours and 12 minutes of driving around, bickering, running roughshod over “modern” law enforcers and violence makes this play a tad like cable’s “Hatfields & McCoys,” without developing any characters beyond the two leads.
But what leads they are, and if “The Highwaymen” of the tale come off more legend than truth, that’s a deal most Western fans — even Westerns with V8 Fords — are more than willing to make.
MPAA Rating: R for some strong violence and bloody images
Cast: Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson Kathy Bates, Emily Brobst, Edward Bossert
Credits: Directed by John Lee Hancock, script by John Fusco. A Netflix Original release.
Running time: 2:12