The legacy of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow has been so tied to Arthur Penn’s 1967 movie that it’s often mistaken as an authoritative account. But the robbers weren’t the only players in the sprawling legacy of Depression-era bank robbers who faced death in a hail of bullets after years on the run. The gory death scene at the end of Penn’s movie comes at the hands of a supporting player on the killer couple’s trail, but “The Highwaymen” flips the equation: As grizzled Texas Rangers Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) roam dusty southern roads on the outlaws’ trail, Bonnie and Clyde remain faceless monsters whose entire presence exists to fuel the men determined to take them down.
The saga of Hamer and Gault is such a natural alternative to this seminal American myth that it’s a wonder it took more than 50 years for someone to show the other side. Yet John Lee Hancock’s sturdy, well-acted drama unfolds as a slow-burn procedural: Think “True Detective” as the ultimate Dad Movie. Returning to a dusty backdrop he last explored with “The Alamo,” Hancock delivers his most palatable movie in some time, but “The Highwaymen” trades the narrative sophistication of its cinematic predecessor for a straightforward investigative saga that flattens this riveting saga into a familiar routine.
Still, the Netflix-produced drama has the sweep and maturity of an old-school Hollywood crime story. Cinematographer John Schwartzman’s ability to capture the yawning golden landscapes of America’s southern highways stand out as much as the appealing smarminess of the two macho leads. “The Highwaymen” wastes no time establishing the threat at hand, with a violent prison escape orchestrated by the robbers unfolding in slick, fast-paced terms, as America wrestles with the national obsession the killers have generated for their efforts.
Stern Texas Governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates in a fun but fleeting cameo) rebuffs media attempts to characterize the killers as a pair of Robin Hoods by emphasizing their murderous streak, a point that movie will return to many times over. Jon Fusco’s screenplay reads like a pitch for its own existence, starting with this sample dialogue from the governor’s big strategy session on the crisis: “This is 1934, and you want to put cowboys on Bonnie and Clyde?”
Not just any cowboys! Hamer, who has retired to his palatial ranch with his wife and an affable pig, at first rebuffs attempts to take on the nation’s biggest outlaws. Having survived a hail of bullets in a botched operation years earlier, he finally gets off his porch to recruit some old partners. But when he winds his way to Gault’s home and spots the recovering alcoholic hobbling around his property, he turns the other way; Gault tracks Hamer down to the gun store to explain that he’s the only one left from their old posse, so they as well get to work.
The pair’s chemistry instantly takes hold: Costner, poker-faced and squinting in the heat, does his best to exude world-weariness in every passing glance, while Harrelson — who struggles to pull his own leathery features into a naughty smirk — suggests a playful energy beaten down by time. “You move like you’re 85,” Hamer says, but the odd couple still have some fight left them. This masculine Western duo were born to be together as much as the criminals in their crosshairs.
As the Rangers trail Bonnie and Clyde through a drab working-class milieu, contending with Clyde’s media taunts and tracking their progression through a handful of states, “The Highwaymen” falls into a pattern of sleepy exchanges and redundant visuals. It’s engaging enough to watch the officers’ ongoing frustration with the celebrity that the killers’ have amassed, even if the movie doesn’t dig that deep into it. When Harrelson finally gets the chance to clap back at some fans of the outlaw in a seedy bar, he lands the movie’s most endearing line: “Clyde might be king, but I’m a Texas Ranger, ya little shit!”
Indeed. As “The Highwaymen” plods along to the eventual final confrontation, it has already unleashed its best material, and the famed lethal showdown unfolds as a watered-down variation on the iconic scene from Penn’s version. Hancock has essentially made a feature-length Cliff Notes to that classic movie while remaining deferential to its legacy. There was more to Bonnie and Clyde than “Bonnie and Clyde,” but “The Highwaymen” falls short of making the case that the good guys had the better tale.
“The Highwaymen” premiered at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. It launches globally on Netflix on March 29 with exclusive theatrical engagements beginning March 15.