Bonnie & Clyde have rampaged across the U.S Midwest for two years unimpeded. Desperate for a solution, the Texan Government turns to retired Texas Rangers Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) to track them down.
Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty shone a dazzling light on the exciting world of 1930s gangster crime in the 1967 biography Bonnie & Clyde. Flying in the face of the law and the Great Depression, the pair became celebrities of their time. But Arthur Penn’s 60s film, in humanising the most notorious figures in U.S crime history, also took the spotlight away from the police who worked tirelessly to stop them.
That’s what The Highwaymen seeks to remedy. Director John Lee Hancock focuses solely on the story of retired Texas Rangers Hamer and Gault as they track Bonnie & Clyde’s killing spree. The criminal pair themselves are notable in their absence from the film. We only ever see the lovers over a long distance – a shot overhead, or down a long empty road – and never witness their conversations. It’s the ultimate way of painting the rebels as untouchable legends, celebrities followed from afar. It also completely removes their humanity, making the chase seem more like a hunt of a rabid animal than young lovers.
The focus on the retired Rangers being out of place in the modern crime-fighting world is prominent throughout the film, and the is source of many of its comic moments. Texas Governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) near the beginning of the film exclaims ‘You want me to send cowboys after gangsters?’ It’s worthy of a chuckle, but that’s what the Rangers are – a call-back to the Old West mystique of rogue gunmen led by a moral compass. This idea of the West brought back to life is rooted in an old-fashioned male heroism complex being eroded in Hollywood. Playing up to this theme makes The Highwaymen interesting for cinematic analysis, but it gets tiresome after the same ‘old’ jokes are told time after time.
Costner and Harrelson fit the roles of grumpy, over-the-hill older men well, and they nail the funny vs. serious routine. Their performances are a little overblown at times, especially on playing up their oldness, but it’s never boring. There’s little to be said about the rest of the cast – Bates is woefully underused, and there are few other characters for us to really get behind. The leads really drag us through the film’s duller moments and help with the odd pacing.
The film throws us into the chase early. This could have contributed to a fast-paced, high-octane chase film. There is only one chase in the whole narrative. What we got instead was a ponderous road trip through dusty highways and poverty-stricken towns. This relaxed pace allows for ample character building, but also contributes to an excessive run time. Hancock could have trimmed off some lengthy tracking shots and padding dialogue for a sleeker and more engaging film. In that vein, the script is solid, allowing for plenty of banter and development between Costner and Harrelson. It does run too long though, stretching the plot’s major beats out over too many scenes and giving The Highwaymen a distended feel.
A little paint by numbers, Netflix’s The Highwaymen is held above forgettable by solid lead performances and a fresh take on the classic gangster tale. 6/10.