“Bonnie and Clyde” is one of the landmarks of Hollywood cinema, so it takes a healthy dose of chutzpah to revisit that territory. “The Highwaymen” does just that – sort of. Instead of focusing on the two elusive outlaws whose two-year bank-robbing spree galvanized Depression-era America, it retells the story from the point of view of the lawmen who ambushed and killed them.
Is it as good as “Bonnie and Clyde”? Of course not. But it’s a solid, straightforward piece of work featuring a pair of first-rate, lived-in performances by Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson that lift the film above its class.
Costner plays Frank Hamer, a Texas Ranger who has been uneasily retired since before Gov. Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) disbanded the Rangers. With the nationwide manhunt going nowhere, she reluctantly calls on Hamer, who has an unparalleled reputation for bagging bad guys, to track down Bonnie and Clyde, who have become folk heroes. To Hamer, they are nothing more than cop killers. In accepting the assignment, it’s clear he has no intention of bringing them back alive.
He ends up enlisting, against his better judgment, a former Ranger from the old days, Harrelson’s Maney Gault, who, when we first see him, is a broken-down layabout with a drinking problem. But these two go way back, and, faced with the alternative of going it alone, and with Gault promising to reform, Hamer takes him on.
If “The Highwaymen” was shaped as a standard crowd-pleaser, director John Lee Hancock and his screenwriter, John Fusco, would have presented these men as creaky codgers grumbling their way on the hunt. (Hancock, by the way, wrote one of Costner’s best vehicles, Clint Eastwood’s “A Perfect World,” in which he played a convict on the run.) Certainly that dynamic is
ever present, but the disparity between the two characters, which goes way beyond their temperaments, is never played for simple laughs. Hamer may be on the side of the law, but he has the stone-cold demeanor of someone for whom taking a life is just part of the job. Maybe even, if the cause is worthy, the best part of the job. To its credit, the movie doesn’t soft pedal the darkness within.
Gault, by contrast, can’t abide the killing that his work necessitates. He has a monologue where he talks about the time he and Hamer wiped out a band of more than 40 Mexican criminals, and it’s clear that, unlike Hamer, the horror of that incident has never left him. Similarly, when a crook with ties to Bonnie and Clyde comes to a bad end after he is set up by the two men, it is Gault alone who bemoans the loss of life.
Movies about violence rarely deal with its psychological consequences. Just pull the trigger and move on. In “The Highwaymen,” the filmmakers give violence its due. Hamer’s coldblooded composure isn’t just pasted on; we can see what it came out of. And Gault, beneath the jauntiness, is clearly racked with memories of bloodshed.
The film also functions as a kind of counterweight to the folk hero myth that “Bonnie and Clyde” perpetuated. (It also restores Hamer’s cinematic reputation after his buffoonish depiction in “Bonnie and Clyde,” which led his widow and son to successfully sue the film’s producers for defamation of character.) In “The Highwaymen,” we rarely get a glimpse of the outlaws at all, and when we do, it’s usually when they are sadistically murdering lawmen. The filmmakers could have done more to elaborate why, given their murderousness, they became heroes, with thousands openly mourning their deaths in 1934. But by keeping the focus on Hamer and Gault, the movie at least gives these men their rightful entitlement.
One more word about Costner: His performance in this film, coming after his fine work in TV’s “Yellowstone” as well as the films “Hidden Figures” and “Molly’s Game,” among many others, is yet another note-
perfect rendition. He has a scene as Hamer where he meets up with Clyde Barrow’s father (a terrific William Sadler) and tells him how he once set out to be a preacher before he developed a taste for law-and-order vengeance, and you can see in that moment how righteousness is this man’s core. At his best, Costner both exalts and complicates the strong and silent types who crowd, often to diminishing effect, so much of our American movie mythology. Grade: B+ (Rated R for some strong violence and bloody images.)