Arthur Penn’s now classic “Bonnie and Clyde” was excoriated in some circles upon its release in 1967 for glorifying the two 1930s murderous bank robbers, but it’s taken more than half a century for a cinematic response from the other side. “The Highwaymen” makes unsung heroes of the two former Texas Rangers who were instrumental in tracking down the outlaw pair and arranging their gruesome downfall.
The duo is Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), who had been mothballed but are called back into service in 1934 by Texas Governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) after the celebrity couple’s crime spree has become too much of an embarrassment to both state and federal governments to be tolerated any longer. It will come as no surprise that these veterans of a form of policing so harsh that Ferguson had earlier disband the force (temporarily, as it turned out) get their man and woman in the end, in a bloody ambush that the new film stages no less graphically than Penn did (and, for those interested in accuracy, on the very road where it actually happened). This time, however, it’s presented as a bloodbath necessary to deflate the popularity the criminals had amassed, and followed by a parade bringing the death car into the nearby Louisiana town where swarms of fans surround and try to touch it.
The director of “The Highwaymen” is John Lee Hancock, who might be described as square in terms of both his choice of material and his stylistic preferences. He’s previously made such pictures as “The Rookie,” “The Blind Side” and “The Alamo,” all of which gave a heroic aura to their protagonists; even Ray Kroc came off pretty well as the iconic American entrepreneur in “The Founder.” The same sort of treatment is applied to Hamer and Gault here.
To be sure, the latter has fallen on hard times and likes the bottle (or flask) a bit too much, but he proves a more genial, and often quite resourceful, partner to the laconic, severe Hamer, who’s fared more successfully in his personal life, having married well to the pretty, socially prominent Gladys (Kim Dickens), whose resistance to his going back on the road crumbles in the face of his commitment to justice. The script by John Fusco also uses the differences between the two to highlight Gault’s doubts about Hamer’s extreme methods and his dismissal of concern about the bloody, unintended consequences they sometimes bring (as when the use of a snitch results in his death). But such concerns are not allowed to seriously undermine the film’s admiration for Hamer as a man determined to do, as you might say, what needs to be done.
There’s also a “mentorship” subplot in terms of an education in the techniques of the manhunt the men give to callow Dallas deputy Ted Hinton (Thomas Mann), who knew Bonnie and Clyde during their youth and can identify them; he’s recruited to join the Louisiana ambush that Hamer and Gault arrange for the desperados in league with the local sheriff (David Born) and the father of one of the pair’s confederates (W. Earl Brown), and the kid gets an initiation into the brutal side of policing in the process.
As for Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Hancock will brook none of the romanticizing of Penn, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. They’re depicted, in fleeting footage, by Emily Brobst and Edward Bossert, as stone-cold killers, devoted to keeping up their public appearances without any concern for their victims. When the ambush arrives and the camera focuses on their faces as they realize the end has come, they take on the look of the mannequins they have been, at greater remove, throughout.
As for the film’s style, it can be described as classically reserved, with deliberate pacing and carefully-shaped imaging. Hancock, cinematographer John Schwartzman (working in earth-toned widescreen) and editor Robert Frazen can pull off an action sequence when they want to (most notably in a circular car chase in a bone-dry Oklahoma field that raises a blizzard of orange dust) or ratchet up tension (as in the final ambush), but for the most part the film is slow and laid back, sometimes monotonously so. That allows one, however, to appreciate the period detail in Michael Corenblith’s production design and Daniel Orlandi’s costumes, though the visuals will undoubtedly lose something in streaming format; the film really benefits from a big screen.
The approach also permits you to appreciate the niceties of performance. One can take pretty much for granted that Costner and Harrelson will play off one another well, the one’s sternness set off nicely by the other’s more extrovert attitude, and when the more dramatic moments occur, they savor them. (They also put across the inevitable episodes about aging like vaudeville troopers.)
But Hancock’s leisurely method extents to providing the supporting cast with opportunities to register strongly, and they’ve been well chosen to seize on them. Brown makes colorful work of the turncoat who puts Bonnie and Clyde in the lawmen’s line of fire, but even his expert turn is overshadowed by veteran William Sanderson’s single scene as Clyde’s father, who’s resigned to his son’s ultimate fate and whose conversation with Hamer about it carries considerable poignancy.
At the opposite extreme, Bates has a field day as the aggressive, cynical Ferguson, bringing theatrical energy to every sequence she’s in, in the process reducing John Carroll Lynch, as the advisor who persuades her to bring the ex-Rangers on board, to distinctly second-string status. Mann is fine, if a bit too goofy, as the neophyte deputy who gets schooled by the veterans.
But these are but the more prominent figures in a large cast. There are what amounts to a telling series of pointed cameos by well-chosen actors along the entire convoluted journey Hamer and Gault take in their pursuit of Parker and Barrow.
“The Highwaymen” will never replace “Bonnie and Clyde” in the cinematic canon, but in its restrained, almost contemplative fashion it offers a solidly made, consistently interesting docu-dramatic take on the hunt for the notorious duo, though one with a very obvious point of view.