There’s never been a more famous or mythologized crime duo than Bonnie and Clyde. From 1932-34 they went on a bank robbing crime spree, and became brandished in the American consciousness as symbols of sex, youth, and rebellion. Nevertheless, they were hardcore cop killers. That fact, and their unlawfulness made Texas institute a nationwide manhunt and desperately reinstate two aging Texas Rangers: Frank Hamer and Maney Gault. John Lee Hancock‘s The Highwaymen — somewhat a companion piece to Arthur Penn‘s 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde — recounts Hamer and Gault’s pursuit of the outlaws in the most sterile, dry, and boring method possible.
The film opens in 1934 at Eastham Prison Farm. Out of the Texas mirage rides a car over freshly-paved road, whooshing past leaves with bad intentions. Cross cutting between the car and the prisoners reveals that this is a prison break. Off comes the spatter of machine-gun fire, filling the sound space with sharp rapidity. The first five-minutes of The Highwaymen will be its most exciting until the final 10 minutes.
We then proceed to the statehouse in Austin, where Governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates, a tremendously wasted talent here) is at her wits’ end. Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch), Sheriff and Head of the Texas Prison system, suggests they hire the aforementioned retired Texas Rangers. The problem? Governor Ferguson disbanded the Rangers because they were basically renegade executioners. At least, that’s her perspective. Instead, Simmons suggests they’re hired as Highwaymen (glorified patrolmen).
Simmons approaches Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) first. Married and tied down to rich socialite Gladys (Kim Dickens), he’s miserable. Frank is a stone-cold killer. Sure, he hides behind killing as the strict requirements of the job but he’s a killer (a man who committed a massacre of outlaws). When Simmons comes to offer him the job, he’s “hesitant.” But he’s only hesitant because of his wife. Hamer is Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses — the weary king who feels useless in old age. He leaves Gladys, with her permission, to team up with Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson): Now, a PTSD-afflicted alcoholic who also longs for the past, but despises it as well.
The Highwaymen becomes a hybrid Western “buddy” road movie, combating the old vs. the new (Ma Ferguson, distrustful of the Rangers sent young Federal agents to get the job done before them).
The film will bore you to tears. While there’s certainly plenty of blood and killing in The Highwaymen, probably more than Bonnie and Clyde, the film lacks the latter’s sense of danger. There’s never a moment where Hamer and Gault are out of their element, except when it comes to running. Also, the outlaw duo their chasing isn’t shown until halfway through the film — and they’re barely given any lines at that. Even the chase scene the two have with Bonnie and Clyde, literally spins around in circles to nothing. Sure; the film is about Hamer and Gault, but without any external danger or force other than age, then the film’s main theme has to be more symbolic.
The intended symbolism of the perils of celebrity comes in drips, but never in a rush. Instead, much like most of The Highwaymen, it’s talked around. Not until the final 10 minutes, when the two finally gun down Bonnie and Clyde and we see the adoration and mourning over their dead bodies paraded down main street are we given a full gulp of what this film could have been.
While Costner and Harrelson perform some wonderful character building, especially Harrelson, Hancock and screenwriter John Fusco don’t give them anything to chew on. The Highwaymen takes the most exciting manhunt in American history, and somehow makes it boring.
An official selection of SXSW 2019