The Highwaymen review: A grumpy lecture on our love of Bonnie and Clyde

The Netflix drama bristles at the thought of ‘cold-blooded killers... more adored than movie stars’, but its sermonising feels directionless

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 28 March 2019 12:14
Trailer for Netflix's The Highwaymen, starring Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner

Director: John Lee Hancock. Starring: Woody Harrelson, Kevin Costner, Kathy Bates, Kim Dickens. Cert: 15, 131m

If you’ve been waiting for Netflix to recreate the feeling of being lectured by the drunk at the bar, then this is your moment. The Highwaymen, directed by John Lee Hancock, is as initially intriguing, yet ultimately tiresome, as those meetings tend to be. Here, it’s a fist shaken in the direction of our romanticisation of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the lovers who terrorised the American Midwest between 1932-1934, committing robberies and killing at least nine police officers. The film instructs us, instead, to idolise (without hesitation) the men who ambushed the pair and riddled their bodies with bullets.

The film’s focus is on the two Texas Rangers who organised the ambush, Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, played respectively by Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson. These actors are Hollywood’s go-to grizzled visages. Costner, particularly, has mastered the kind of wise, whisky-aged croak that speaks to a very American idea of heroism. He’s the kind of man that does not seek glory or compensation, but whose heaven consists of sitting in his rocking chair on the front porch of his home. Gault is the lighter, more comic character, although Harrelson still brings a sense of worldliness to the role. When the film opens, both men are retired, Texas governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) having disbanded the rangers. They make a return to the field as part of Ferguson’s last-ditch attempt to end the criminal spree, although their bodies may not quite be the finely tuned engines they once were.

They may once have been deadly trackers, but Hamer and Gault are now two grumpy old men. They’ve become bitter at how the world has changed around them. They rage when they see water towers painted with “Go Bonnie and Clyde” and crowds of young women wearing Parker’s signature beret. For modern audiences, the film comes off more as a censure of Arthur Penn’s 1967 Bonnie and Clyde and its enduring popularity. In that film, the pair were depicted as glamorous counterculture heroes with the faces of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. Hamer, meanwhile, was played as such an incompetent buffoon that his widow sued for defamation and received a settlement from the studio.

The Highwaymen bristles at the thought of “cold-blooded killers… more adored than movie stars”, but its sermonising feels directionless. It seems more interested in complaining about history than rewriting it. Bonnie and Clyde’s supporters are treated like a ravenous, witless mass, crowding around their car to catch a glimpse of them. The Highwaymen, however, can only really deal with the mystique of Bonnie and Clyde by almost ignoring them entirely. They’re only glimpsed, not seen. She is a white pair of heels and the shadow of a machine gun. When the camera does finally settle on their faces, it’s moments before their deaths. They appear to us only as terrified youths, so far out of their league – Bonnie was 23 and Clyde was 24 when they were killed. The film never dares to confront why America may have found such appeal in these two outlaws. We have no sense of what Bonnie and Clyde symbolised. In reality, their violent rampage came to represent the Depression era’s resentment towards a nation that had left its people feeling robbed and betrayed.

What it attempts to thrust in Bonnie and Clyde’s place doesn’t seem like much of a heroic substitute. The Highwaymen is just as guilty of glamourising violence as Arthur Penn’s ode to outlaws, but we’re meant to embrace Hamer and Gault because they justify themselves as enacting some kind of cosmic order. There’s no question in their minds that Bonnie and Clyde will never be given a fair trial. Even Barrow’s own father gives his blessing for the two men to gun his son down. Although Gault is depicted as having some regret for his past bloodshed – it’s clear these men have killed many in cold blood, circumventing the law when it suits them – we’re meant to forgive them, accepting these deaths as a mere burden of their greater duties. It’s a throwback fantasy to the old, lawless days of the cowboys, as Ferguson bemoans: “They took orders from no one and left me to answer for the blood.” It’s a worrying rhetoric, especially in the light of how unchecked power has fed into police brutality and the terrible damage it’s inflicted on society. The Highwaymen should have taken note: sometimes a story simply has no heroes.

The Highwaymen is released on Netflix on 29 March

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