Some genres of film are built to challenge audiences through innovative writing and unpredictable settings. Others, however, like a historical film based on true events, are specifically designed to be paint-by-number, A-to-B-to-C stories that help an audience re-live a specific event or events. This isn’t necessarily a bad and/or boring thing, in terms of storytelling. Historical events have already laid down the plot points and, for some, the conclusion is already known. It is thus the filmmaker’s job to provide unique perspectives on the characters and add something special to the physical environment to make the predestined journey from point A to point B enjoyable.
The new Netflix original, The Highwaymen, is the type of film that has the bones of its screenplay written out before it even went into production. The story of criminals Bonnie and Clyde is not only a legendary crime tale, but it has also been depicted in film successfully in the past, almost to the point of taking over the cultural zeitgeist on what these real-life characters looked and acted like. Many who think of Bonnie and Clyde automatically think of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
So what makes this familiar story worth telling? It is all about the perspective and the presentation. For starters, they hired director John Lee Hancock, known for character-driven movies based on true stories, such as The Rookie, about a forty-year-old pitcher who came out of nowhere to join Major League Baseball, The Blind Side, about offensive lineman Michael Oher’s unique journey to college and pro football, and The Founder, about the creation and expansion of McDonalds restaurants. The throughline with these films is there are certain individuals that meet very specific challenges, be it age, environment, or experience, that prevent them from easily achieving something they were born to do.
The next step then is the story. The Highwaymen abandons the Bonnie and Clyde angle all together to focus on the people that led to their downfall. In the case of writer John Fusco’s script, we have long retired former Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, who struggle with the wear and tear of time as well as personal demons. Fusco, a noted writer of Westerns, romanticized period fantasies, and noir, wisely elevates Bonnie and Clyde to specters that haunt the background, always one step ahead of our heroes.
Now, with a script in place and a competent director, the third essential piece, the cinematographer, comes into play. The filmmakers wisely chose Oscar-nominated cinematographer John Schwartzman, known for a plethora of work from simple romantic comedies to historical/period epics. Since a majority of The Highwaymen takes place in post-Great Depression Texas and Oklahoma, with a lot of empty space, Schwartzman has the luxury of using the endless landscapes and varying weather to great, atmospheric effect.
And while there are many other jobs that come into play to make 1930s rural America a reality (such as brilliant costume work by Emmy winner Daniel Orlandi (Down with Love) and flawless production design and set decoration by Oscar nominee Michael Corenblith (Apollo 13) and Emmy nominee Susan Benjamin (Frost/Nixon), respectively, nailing down the unique perspective and look is the key to making the other side of a familiar tale seem interesting.
In The Highwaymen, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, wild lovers, are three years into their crime spree that has confounded lawmen and intrigued the general public to the point of making them underdog icons. Despite a one thousand man dragnet, Parker and Barrow have eluded capture and, where the film picks up, have just helped some of their buddies escape a work detail. Since the escape led to the death of a prison guard in Texas, governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) is so desperate to catch the outlaws that she begrudgingly accepts the recommendation of using famed Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner).
Since Ferguson herself outlawed the “lawless” Texas Rangers, Hamer and whoever he recruits, would be considered Highwaymen (essentially Highway Patrol), with restricted jurisdiction within Texas and no further. This is the first obstacle in Hamer’s investigation as he has concluded that Bonnie and Clyde are in perpetual motion throughout multiple states.
Hamer, suffering from long retirement and age (he can’t run to save his life, his suits barely fit, and his aim is off with a gun), hesitantly recruits former Ranger Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), a down-and-out alcoholic who Hamer thinks walks around like he’s 85 years old. Working purely off instinct and old fashioned detective work (often derided by the burgeoning FBI and their forensic team throughout the investigation), the two weary investigators set about on their journey to kill Bonnie and Clyde, for, as they suspect, there will be no capture.
As mentioned before, the greatest choice the movie makes is letting Bonnie and Clyde exist solely as legend. With the exception of a few shots, the Bonnie and Clyde characters share no dialogue and the movie actually never shows their faces in full until the very end. As the public’s fascination with Bonnie and Clyde grows to a fever pitch, the phantom crime duo, who Hamer and Gault are always one step behind from getting, becomes an ever-increasing burden that pushes the Rangers to a breaking point.
Kevin Costner has always been his best when stoic, as his stilted line delivery is often mistaken for an incapacity to act. Costner might not have had a lot of range but when he is cast correctly, he is phenomenal and Hamer is the perfect Costner role. Hamer’s sense of justice is intact but his ability to feel has been deadened with the blood of countless criminals (and possibly innocents) on his hands. He is the embodiment of the perceived lawlessness that got the Rangers disbanded in the first place.
Costner has embraced his age with Hamer and the filmmakers do the wise thing in showing that these men are not superheroes and can’t defy age. There is one chase scene in particular where Hamer chases a young boy on foot and is eventually defeated when he can’t scale a fence. He spends the next few minutes wheezing and kicking himself for daring to age!
Woody Harrelson, who is always great in everything, is the perfect foil for Costner. Loud, slovenly, and completely beaten down by his past, Gault’s guilt has led to his deterioration. He joins the manhunt with Hamer to seek some kind of retribution though, as the journey goes on, he realizes, like everything else in his life, the conclusion will be bloodshed. Unlike Hamer, who is hardened by the past, Gault is constantly crumbling.
The vulnerabilities and flaws of our two main heroes play perfectly against the public’s love, protection, and affection for Bonnie and Clyde. Adding to their misery of not being able to catch the bandits is the idea that when they do, they will be hated for it, not appreciated. This concept is the lifeblood of the film and helps propel it forward. It asks the question, “why do this if all it will do is destroy you”?
Schwartzman’s cinematography also adds to the loneliness and isolation the characters feel as the seemingly endless vistas of Texas and Oklahoma compliment the equally endless mission of chasing down the near-phantom like Bonnie and Clyde.
As stated, the film does have limitations with its storytelling. You will not be going into The Highwaymen getting an innovative retelling of history, just a less familiar, but still formulaic, detail of the other side of a famous story. And for that, critics have been a bit harsh. Sitting at a “rotten” rating of 51% on Rotten Tomatoes, critics seem to fault the storytelling but not necessarily the acting, especially Costner and Harrelson together.
I think the film is solid and the built-in narrative limitations are aided by a good script and strong supporting components such as casting, production design, and cinematography. It is not a waste of anyone’s time and, at the worst, you’ll learn something. I say give it a go.