America has a habit of romanticizing those who fight against the “establishment.” Sometimes this has included individuals who have made positive social impacts on our country. But often the public and media have idolized outlaws and criminals. Stories of Bonnie and Clyde conjure young rebellious love; a pair of lovers who robbed corrupt banks during the Great Depression. While they were young, in love, and anti-establishment, they were also cold-hearted killers, murdering a number of civilians and officers who tried to stop them. “The Highwaymen” tells the story of two former Texas Rangers who were brought out of retirement to stop Bonnie and Clyde once and for all.
Screenwriter John Fusco has a history of writing about “what’s under the veneer of myth and folklore“, as a number of his prior films have painted a more realistic light on well-known characters. While researching he not only spent time in the archives at the Texas Ranger’s Research Center but with the son of Frank Hamer. Hamer (Kevin Costner) was a legend in his own right, one of the most revered of the Texas Rangers, before they were disbanded in 1933. But after Hoover and his fledgling FBI failed to apprehend Bonnie and Clyde after nearly two years, Governor Ma Furguson (Kathy Bates) was convinced to try a different tactic. Hamer and his partner Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) were put on Special Highway Assignment. Over the next year, Hamer and Gault lived out of their car and were often only a city or two behind the Barrow Gang.
Director John Lee Hancock takes this already interesting story and applies an interesting visual style to it. With parallels to today’s social media, our glimpses at Bonnie and Clyde during the film pop with color, and a touch voyeuristic. Everyone’s imaginations make them bigger than life. Contrasting this is the gritty reality of lives wrecked in their wake, as Hamer and Gault slowly close in. Stopping them isn’t a job Hamer wants, but it’s something he feels must be done. The closer they get, the more morally ambiguous their actions become, and in an interesting parallel, the dirtier his fancy Ford V8 becomes. It’s a cool visual cue representing what the men are going through for the greater good.
Although the film has a strong first and final act, the middle feels slightly too long, but it still serves the narrative well. Pacing is important and hurrying through certain segments could easily undermine the hardships of their journey. Harrelson and Costner have such delightful on-screen chemistry any extra runtime is welcomed. (Besides, it’s been far too long since we last saw Costner don a Fedora)
THE HIGHWAYMEN is in select theatres now and debuts on Netflix on 3/29/19