The story of Bonnie and Clyde has been told many times on film, as has the story of Frank Hamer, the man most popularly associated with their downfall in 1934. I can’t say I’ve ever been as enthralled by either of those two stories as others have. Perhaps Bonnie and Clyde is an outlaw tale that appeals primarily to American audiences, being so intrinsically tied to the Great Depression and the dust bowl and that pre-World War II era of Tommy Guns and bank robbery, of public enemies and posses.
And perhaps the same can be said for the story of the Texas Rangers at that time, men clinging on to the last vestiges of the wild west and that sort of vigilante-style justice they so embodied. The Highwaymen, the latest Netflix original with a fairly big name cast, is an attempt to tell the story of the Texas Rangers – two of them anyway – and their part in the Bonnie and Clyde story, but boy are their some pitfalls to be navigated here, not least the iffy historical record of the ambush and the attitudes of Hamer himself, a controversial figure in Texan law enforcement history to say the least.
With Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow embarked on a crime spree of robbery and murder, Texan governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) comes under pressure to revive the recently disbanded Texas Rangers as a solution to the problem. As other agencies scramble to bring down the tommy gun toting pair, Ma authorises the use of two retired Rangers – quiet, focused Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and down-on-his-luck Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) to act as semi-independent hunters, but the quest to stop Bonnie and Clyde will not be an easy one, bringing the pair face-to-face with the heart of the Depression-era south.
There are three key ways that The Highwaymen falls down, and it really did not have to be so. The root of an thought-provoking idea is clearly visible in its premise, of looking at the law’s side in a tale normally dominated by the criminals, but The Highwaymen can’t get beyond that trifecta of mediocrity: the performances of the leads, its questionable grasp of the historical record in relation to the story being told, and it’s length.
Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson really look for all the world as if they want to be doing anything else. Like a lot of films I have seen recently, The Highwaymen had a fairly lengthy genesis, apparently going all the way back to 2005, and it is my experience that such productions often tend to end up with leads who regret their choice. So seems to have been the case here, where Costner was brought in only after a number of other actors, Robert Redford and Liam Neeson among them, declined.
Costner clearly wants his Hamer to comes across as a quietly confident, intense yet somewhat repressed individual, but the bottom line is that his Hamer is mouse-ish to the point of being boring, unexpressive, limited and simple in character terms. Harrelson is only slightly better with a slightly meatier backstory – alcoholic, suffering with the rest of the Depression unemployed, raring for perhaps one last chance to be in the crime-fighting saddle – but suffers from the same sense of over-restraint in his performance, like the director, Saving Mr Banks‘ John Lee Hancock, was actively holding him back. The two don’t have a great dynamic, settling into a fairly rote “good cop/bad cop” roles. And the only other person even remotely noteworthy in The Highwaymen is poor unfortunate Kathy Bates, in what could have been a meaty role – “Ma” Ferguson is a truly fascinating historical personality in her own right – but which is essentially a distant quasi-antagonist figure here, in about four or five scenes.
The historical record is, as I have said before, not sacrosanct, and should be bent, and even broken occasionally in the pursuit of an entertaining narrative. But that doesn’t mean that the historical record should be completely discarded, or definitively ignored. I speak, of course, about the main character of Frank Hamer, who is undoubtedly the film’s heroic focus: this old school law man who doesn’t let pesky things like due process get in the way of shooting down the bad guys, even if the ignorant masses may think, in a fit of delusion, that said bad guys are more than just bank robbing murderers. Writer John Fusco may have felt a need to correct the record a tad, as Arthur Penn’s 1967 Bonnie And Clyde portrayed the lawman as a bumbling moron, but this is, in every sense of the word, a whitewash.
Hamer’s endemic racism is largely ignored, as is his “shoot first, ask questions never” style of gun fighting justice, bar a third-act Harrelson monologue describing the man’s gunning down of numerous Mexican criminals without prior warning years prior, an event that seems like it is being played at least partially for sympathy regards the police who carried out the massacre. Instead, he is, “member berries”-like, just the stern old-man here to lay some discipline down on the unruly kids. Other aspects of Hamer’s background – like his efforts to thwart investigations into the Texas Rangers extra judicial killings, or his role in strike-breaking organisations – go un-commented on. In a day and age when the predilection of white police officers to racist policing is a recurring theme, the absence of such from a man like Hamer seems tone-deaf, at best.
You could argue that such things are not in the scope of the story, but given that a central theme is the warped perception of the Bonnie and Clyde gang that members of the public have, giving an accurate portrayal of who Hamer was, good and bad, was especially essential. The Highwaymen does not do that, and also goes a step further by presenting the brief shutdown of the Texas Rangers, a law enforcement branch that was essentially taking that law into its own hands whenever it felt like, as being the result of ignorant, interfering politicians who should know better than to place their trust in the modern scientific methods of the FBI (in one risible scene, Gault kicks dust over a forensic examination out of sheer spite). We should also not forget about the actual ambush of Bonnie and Clyde, an event with numerous different accounts, where Hancock chooses to depict Hamer in as noble a light as possible.
Last of those three key flaws is the film’s length, with The Highwaymen clocking in at a truly heroic two hours and twelve minutes, for a story that I genuinely believe could probably have been told in 90 and change. The problem is that the tale of Hamer and Gault’s hunt for Bonnie and Clyde is simply too straightforward to be padded out for this length of time, resembling an episode of Law & Order in the way it amounts to “this person leads to this person leads to this person”. Sad to say given the film’s attempt to have a unique viewpoint on this story, it may actually have benefited from some time for Bonnie and Clyde themselves, two characters who remain almost entirely in the background, and are a damn sight more interesting, character wise, than Hamer and Gault.
Which is not to say that The Highwaymen doesn’t have a few striking things to say, or a few stimulating scenes. When Hamer has a pow-wow with Clyde’s father, the script lingers for a moment on the origins of criminal behavior, a brief juxtaposition between Hamer’s apparent belief in the inherent nature of evil and the father’s insistence that it is nurture – in this case an over-the-top harassment of Clyde since he was a boy from law-enforcement, after he stole a chicken because he was hungry – that is to blame. Gault is generally thought-provoking as an example of a man in this place and time trying to avoid the black hole of unemployment, alcoholism and being a burden to his family, even if you can consider him past-it in most senses of the term.
And most interestingly, The Highwaymen asks us to ponder the nature of the relationship between infamy and celebrity, which is something that must surely resonate in today’s world. From mass-shooters to world leaders, it seems today that the best way to get famous, and even adored by a proportion of the masses, is to do bad and say bad things that should be considered outside the pale; Hancock turns his camera on a pretty ancient example, but one that is a progenitor of the modern behavior nonetheless.
Bonnie and Clyde break criminals out of prison, rob banks and stores, kill people in cold blood, murder cops in grisly execution style and fully intend to go down swinging, yet the people of this dust bowl love them for their exoticism, their anti-authoritarian nature, for the perception that they rob from the rich to give to the poor in a time when the rich are rich and the poor are dying under heel. The two are mobbed by a small-town’s adoring population while Hamer and Gault look on, disgusted, and Hamer is moved to violence by a gas station attendant who expresses admiration for the two, despite the clear evidence, within the film anyway, that the two are sadistic to some extent. The parallels are not hard to see, but Hancock gives time to look at the fickleness of the mob: when the inevitable comes, a same adoring crowds want to tear the corpses of the criminal duo apart for grisly souvenirs.
Hancock directs a good-looking production, one that captures the dust bowl for why it was called that, and the expanse of the American south-west where a group of marauding criminals could disappear into the horizon. It’s an era where the world is still clinging onto the wild west while the tide of modernity sweeps relentlessly in, the point made visually by the camera’s emphasis on cars and gas stations replacing horses and way stations and a mid-point car shootout that turns into a confused dust storm hunt is a nice blend of the twin focuses. What action exists here is is not all some exciting: one of the film’s few moments of humour in an otherwise flat script is seeing the aging Hamer struggle, and ultimately fail, to chase down a young lead on foot.
The Highwaymen is an unsatisfying beast, one that takes the potential of its premise and largely wastes it in glorifying an American institution and personality who simply do not need, and arguably do not deserve, the glorification. The performances from the leads are wooden, and the dynamic between the two, all important in a buddy-cop production, is lacking. It’s too long and too dull, and while it has some redeeming value from its commentary on celebrity, it isn’t enough to save it. Hamer and Gault do not beat Bonnie and Clyde. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).