Review: The Highwaymen

I like gangster films, 1930’s period pieces, and buddy cop movies, so I was bound to love Netflix’s The Highwaymen, starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as two retired Texas Rangers brought back for one final job in the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a western set in the era of Ford cars and Tommy guns. It’s a cool premise with a solid execution.

I was actually startled by how desolate Harrelson was in this film. The trailer made Harrelson’s Maney Gault seem like a sort of whimsical partner to Costner, but he plays a truly broken, haunted man, someone with a history of alcoholism to escape the memories of self-inflicted traumas, someone who feels worthless to everyone, including his own family. He clings with almost dog-like loyalty to his former superior, desperate to do something right in his final days, even if he’s not sure he can live with the consequences of their ultimate martial task. In contrast, Costner’s former Ranger Captain Frank Hamer has found a loving wife and comfortable life, marrying into wealth. Yet while he is the more stoic of the two cowboy enforcers, Hamer is very obviously suppressing his own guilt and pain.

(By the way, does it seem like there are more and more movies about older, more vulnerable men confronting–or running from–their violent legacies? Logan and The Last Jedi certainly show the trend’s alive in recent pop blockbuster films, but they seem to be everywhere, and action movies and westerns are no exception. I found a 2013 essay musing on the old-man-action-hero subgenre, but I’d say that it’s continued to evolve, with more of an emphasis on the failing powers of an older generation, rather than simply the stories of older tough guys who can still take and throw a punch better than any of the younger whippersnappers.)

Writer John Fusco and director John Lee Hancock assembled a fantastic story here. I loved that the focus was almost entirely on the law enforcement pursuit, and the depiction of Bonnie and Clyde is largely via case files, news reports, and public adoration of the distorted, larger-than-life image that the couple held. While there are snippets of the criminal duo in tense scenes of highway murders, the most we see of a Parker or a Barrow is in one mesmerizing sequence shared between Hamer and Clyde’s mechanic father (played by William Sadler). That said, the film presents a curious mingling of fact and fiction that offers itself more as a thoughtful and melancholy story about two men who have lived on past their fading into myth, rather than as a literal representation of the principals involved.

While there is a lot of dramatic embellishment, the portrayal of “Ma” Ferguson was especially hard to reconcile with reality, despite the occasional allusions to corruption allegations in the film. Still, Kathy Bates is a delight as the Governor of Texas in every scene in which she appears.

Just a couple more notes, as usual focusing on what’s obvious to me (which of course means neglecting many of the creative and practical elements of the film that made it enjoyable to me as a whole). While this is a movie that often allows scenes to rest on ambient sound, the high-energy fiddling score by Thomas Newman feels perfect. Additionally, I enjoyed John Schwartzman’s cinematography; the scenery is at turns achingly beautiful and hauntingly desolate, as the lawmen pursue the outlaw lovers over sizzling roadways and through dust fields, lying in wait in Dallas exurb slums and along pine-forested Louisiana back country.

While this film isn’t covering revolutionary new ground, it tells a solid cops-and-robbers story that finds time to reflect on legacy and reputation. It’s worth your time.

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