Bonnie and Clyde have never left us. Originally a pair of small time crooks who cut a bloody trail across the American South and Midwest, the duo of young lovers with itchy trigger fingers caught the national imagination during a time of great inequality and suffering at the height of the Depression, and then again in the late tumultuous ‘60s when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway made Tommy Guns firing at authority sexy once more. With countless reimaginings, reconfigurations, and remakes of their archetype, it’s easy to forget the actual fallout of those original piano-gun sprays. But John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen hasn’t.
Coming now in a renewed age of income inequality and severe distrust of leadership, Hancock has crafted a love letter to the squares in the car trailing right behind the rock stars; the unglamorous ones who may not be rolling in the grass, but who drag the shattered bodies and lives off the pavement that’s been smeared in that frollicking’s wake. And by doing so, Hancock is no less romantic than Arthur Penn was while filming Beatty and Dunaway over 50 years ago, albeit his archetypal iconography is an ode to why even in bad times we shouldn’t fall for bad men (or women).
Set years after the perpetually off-screen Bonnie and Clyde have begun their wild run that spans all the way from Texas to Illinois, their latest atrocity has placed Texas Governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) at the end of her ropes. When she had previously come into office, she’d disbanded the local good ol’ boy law enforcement system of the Texas Rangers, but the romanticization of cop killers as “Robin Hood” in the press is just too much, so she seeks out her own mythic figure to fight it in the form of retired Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner).
Living at home with his wife (a barely utilized Kim Dickens), Frank has little interest in chasing Bonnie and Clyde, but he has even less love for seeing more headlines of uniformed men lying dead in the street. So he reteams with his old colleague, if not quite friend, Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) for an extended road trip as Ma Ferguson’s “highwaymen.” They have direct orders to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde and bring them to justice however they see fit. Yet along the way, a sense of doom lies over not just their targets but also Frank and Maney themselves, for they come to realize that the only way to stop Bonnie and Clyde from moving is to cut them off. Permanently.
A large part of The Highwaymen’s success, which was quite visible when it debuted earlier this week at SXSW, is the casting of Costner and Harrelson. Stoic to a fault, Costner has always had a distinct screen persona. Reserved and often benefiting more from the presence he brings to a project than the lines he is required to read, Costner has throughout his career appeared most comfortable behind a badge, be it as Elliot Ness while hunting down Al Capone, Wyatt Earp going after the Clanton Gang in Arizona, or now Frank Hamer under Big Texan Sky. Transitioning from the young naif with noble intentions in The Untouchables to the grizzled old soul that once was played by Sean Connery, Costner is still nothing if not righteously reassuring.
Also while he doesn’t have a young whippersnapper to show the ropes here, he is balanced tremendously by the presence of Harrelson. Always the character-actor whose natural boisterousness elevates any project he’s in, it’s Harrelson’s genuine Texan slow-roasted charm that covers the film with enough smoky warmth to obscure that the picture is mostly the pair chitchatting while driving down the open road. Certainly evoking the idea that the Texan Rangers of 1934 were a bridge between the cowboys of the 19th century and modern law enforcement today, Hancock’s movie paints Costner and Harrelson as essentially on the open trail. However, at an unnecessarily leggy 132 minutes, it is Harrelson’s winsomeness that makes Frank Hamer’s quest feel slightly more than only a duty and from being as bone dry as the weather outside of the car.
Hancock remains a director whose films tend to reexamine larger-than-life Americana. Having made an overlooked—and we’d argue superior—version of The Alamo, as well as humanizing accounts both positive of its subject matter (Saving Mr. Banks) and negative (The Founder), Hancock has a knack for reevaluating some of the cornerstone foundations of the Baby Boomer generation. And few are as foundational in cinema for those youthful years than 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, which brought these alleged anti-heroes to the Vietnam era. Inviting contrast, The Highwaymen is almost willfully unhip and self-righteous as a companion piece, often electing to lean into Costner’s desert-sized remoteness instead of the boozy thrill of roadside escapades.
In this way, Hancock would appear to both embrace and dismiss comparisons to the cinema classic, as his film isn’t trying to compete on the road; it instead suggests moviegoers have been going down the wrong direction all along, and maybe not only in regards to these two. The Highwaymen is therefore less fun than the popular image by design, as well as more somber than some of Costner’s other legendary lawmen performances. Because at the end of the day, everyone knows this story ended with Bonnie and Clyde being more or less executed in an avalanche of gunfire. The Highwaymen must then consider at least some ambiguity about how by-the-book lawmen must rationalize the best case scenario is also the most gruesome in its conclusion.
Unfortunately, The Highwaymen soft-pedals that greater moral exploration at the last minute, choosing to simply accept the heroism of frontier justice as just that, even when it’s found in a bullet-ridden car as opposed to a horseback-chase to the border. Consequently, The Highwaymen isn’t a definitive answer to the ’67 movie’s moral relativism, if only since it doesn’t truly want to have that conversation. Even so, it raises plenty of interesting aspects in its own best moments. By refusing to show, and thereby glorify, the titular Bonnie and Clyde until after they’ve been shot up, Hancock and company create a Rashomon exercise between the burgeoning celebrities the pair’s newspaper stardom has birthed, the monsters whose cruelty Hamer and Gault are constantly finding the remnants of, and the true reality of what they were—a couple of young kids who were perhaps meddling with forces even they didn’t fully comprehend. For the ugly underbelly of American hero worship, good and bad, is on full display with the way mobs of fans interrupt actual car chases in Highwaymen, and then swarm the bodies of recently dead celebrities in the hopes of claiming their own Holy Relics from the remains.
There is something unnerving about how this story of cops and robbers from nearly a hundred years ago encapsulates a century’s worth of consumption—the consumption of products, the consumption of ideas, and the consumption of literal people, and then the stories they leave behind. The Highwaymen unpacks one such tale and attempts to find a rock-solid center in what’s usually been a moral muddle. The result is a film that is defiantly old-fashioned but in a way that doesn’t make it untrue or not worthwhile after decades of falling further down into the muck that comes with chasing after Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker into the dust.