On the surface, The Highwaymen has all the trappings of a long tradition of mythology about crime and law enforcement in America. Criminals on a spree have become more popular than the police, casting themselves as Robin Hoods. In desperation, the authorities pull two old war horses out of retirement who have to learn to get along with each other again while tracking down the gang. Their bosses want to fire them, the feds think they’re jokes, but they might end up beating all the odds. It’s practically every movie cliché from Lethal Weapon to, well, Natural Born Killers and more.
The difference with The Highwaymen is that it rebuts the mythologies on both sides of the justice line. It tells the true story — for the most part — about the mission of Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, two former Texas Rangers, to stop Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker’s murder spree in 1934. The film, which debuted on Netflix yesterday after a small theatrical release on March 15th, strips the pretenses away from both sides of the brief war in the Midwest and gives us an insight not just into what actually took place, but our own propensity for mythologies.
** Some mild spoilers **
The Highwaymen focuses almost entirely on Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Gault (Woody Harrelson), without any doubt as to the purpose of their operation. As soon as Hamer gets his commission, he buys enough guns and ammunition to supply a small army. While Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) promises the media that Texas will capture Bonnie and Clyde, it’s clear from the start that Hamer’s mission is to kill them, full stop, before their gang can kill any more police officers. Gault joins up but is more troubled than Hamer over tactics and purpose, which allows the film to explore the morality of what ends up taking place.
Even the title reflects that moral ambiguity present in the story. “Highwaymen” were robbers and brigands that plagued roads outside of legal jurisdictions. In fact and in intent, Hamer and Gault act outside jurisdiction and the law, too. Is it for justice? Revenge? Or is it to save lives that might otherwise be lost to a gang that had gotten a taste for blood and whose murders had picked up momentum? Even the two main characters struggle with those questions, leading to an emotional climax before the big shootout we all know will take place, but one which subtly changes that final confrontation as well.
If the film strips the mythologies away from law enforcement, it practically strangles those related to the criminals. We barely see Bonnie Parker or Clyde Barrow in the film, except at a distance. It’s an utter reversal from Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, in which the pair get almost all the attention and are sympathetically portrayed as misunderstood youthful rebels. In The Highwaymen, we only know them from their crimes. The only sympathetic note in the film comes from Barrow’s father (an excellent cameo by William Sadler), but even that comes with more layers of moral ambiguity and the question of the nature of evil. Otherwise, their crimes speak for their characters, even while others make excuses for their evil.
That brings us to the third entity that The Highwaymen manages to demythologize, too: us. Subtly at first, then crescendoing to an indictment at the end, our impulse to build mythologies about crime and law enforcement is on display all along the way to the very end. Harrelson’s presence in this deconstruction is all the more interesting, two decades after his participation in the controversial Natural Born Killers, but he also just happens to give a pitch-perfect performance in The Highwaymen. Costner also delivers as Hamer, and the performances are consistently excellent from the rest of the cast. Without Harrelson, though, this film would not work nearly as well as it does.
Although the film is on Netflix, it’s also playing in some theaters as well, so you might be able to catch it without a Netflix subscription. On the Hot Air scale, The Highwaymen gets a 5 … if you don’t already have Netflix, obviously:
- 5 – Full price ticket
- 4 – Matinee only
- 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
- 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
- 1 – Avoid at all costs
The Highwaymen has an R rating, and believe me, it’s justified. The violence is graphic and plentiful, although with the exception of the ending its graphic nature is mostly seen in retrospect. My older granddaughter is almost old enough to buy her own ticket, but it’s not for anyone younger than that.