The Highwaymen, Netflix’s new manhunt film starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, is a suspenseful and morally fraught take on the story of the ex–Texas Rangers who tracked down the most famous bank robbers of 1934. But this movie about chasing Bonnie and Clyde is also a movie about Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a pleasing tale of resourceful, hard-nosed cops that’s also something of an essay on cinema and society.
Arthur Penn’s 1967 cinematic landmark (which is also streaming on Netflix) launched an American New Wave of counterculture films about anti-heroes and misfits contesting a nefarious system. Penn’s successors painted a bleak leftist vision of America as a land of beautiful eccentrics destroyed by materialism, militarism, greed, conformity, and corruption. Exactly two decades after Bonnie and Clyde, though, Costner became a star in The Untouchables, which heralded a Reaganite restoration in which movies celebrated lawmen and the military as the good guys who brought order to chaotic times.
Retelling Bonnie and Clyde from the point of view of the actual heroes of the story is a superb idea that took far too long to come to screen. Hired by the governor of Texas, “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates), aging ex-Rangers Frank Hamer (Costner) and Maney Gault (Harrelson) are given a special mandate to end a reign of terror that left 13 people dead, yet was celebrated as a romantic tale of sexy desperadoes who were folk heroes to the newspapers of the Great Depression and later easily adapted into symbols of Sixties liberation.
Channeling Hamer’s rage and disgust, The Highwaymen attacks the myth of Bonnie and Clyde, who are seen only in glimpses. Far from robbing banks on behalf of hapless victims of the Depression, the Barrow gang mostly stuck to soft targets such as gas stations and grocery stores. Yet ordinary Americans were enthralled by the rebel legends and are seen concealing information to cover for the killers — though they were cheap, vicious cowards who would do anything for a buck. Governor Ferguson (Kathy Bates) replies to reporters pushing the Robin Hood narrative, “Did Robin Hood ever shoot a gas station attendant in the head for four dollars and a tank of gas?”
John Fusco’s shrewd and meditative script has fun trolling Bonnie and Clyde: The scene in the earlier film in which Bonnie dramatically reads aloud her poem about her life and anticipated death inspires a scene in which Hamer and Gault consider the same poem and note that it’s moronic. “Used to be, you had to have talent to get published. Now you just have to shoot people,” notes Gault. In another scene Gault just about has Clyde in his sights when the bandit’s car is suddenly mobbed by adoring fans.
Directed by the Texan John Lee Hancock, who tends toward warm, heartland-friendly films such as The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks, The Highwaymen falls far short of Penn’s visual style — the editing and cinematography are lackluster in the manner of a TV movie, and the new-looking sets don’t supply much Depression grit. Thomas Newman’s hokey score is also unfortunate.
Yet the film is alive with ideas. Its core is conservative in its determination to set the record straight about the relative values of law and order on one hand and unchecked narcissism on the other, but it departs from a major conservative principle. Like the heroes of Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, and Sylvester Stallone movies, the highwaymen take the law into their own hands in pursuit of these vicious lawbreakers. The ex-Rangers blithely stray far from their Texas jurisdiction, and Hamer beats up a gas-station attendant to make him talk. This may make for gratifying entertainment, but it’s also wrong.
So it’s welcome when Harrelson’s character, Gault, somewhat atypically for the actor, casts Hamer’s tactics as stooping to the level of the felons. The Highwaymen is mature enough to at least acknowledge the problem, to paint its heroes as morally tainted rather than brushing off all concerns about lawbreaking as sissy liberalism. There is some surprising soul-searching about whether it’s morally permissible to shoot murderers without warning. Cops who seek to give the gang an opportunity to surrender pay with their lives, and there’s an episode in Hamer and Gault’s back story that informs their thinking, though it doesn’t make them feel good about it: On one raid they shot a 13-year-old boy who was trying to flee.
Bonnie and Clyde ends famously with the shooting of the fugitives and their car, but The Highwaymen continues one illuminating beat longer. As the auto is towed into a Louisiana town, corpses inside it, swarms of fans descend again, this time trying to tear off any relic they can from the lifeless bodies. The townsfolk seem like wolves, or vultures. Even after death, the lust for proximity to fame continues, and it’s a toxic, reality-distorting force. Bonnie and Clyde were ruthless killers yet remain icons, while Hamer and Gault are all but forgotten. May this film begin to remedy that historic injustice.