Written by – Nathaniel Torres
Stories of outlaws, gunslingers, and renegades have a tendency to captivate a wild side of our souls. By 1934 Bonnie and Clyde succeeded in procuring public favor in such a way. They were wanted for multiple murders and countless robberies. They didn’t evade police, they blew through them; escalating shootouts with their firepower. The Highwaymen begins with this emboldened duo successfully pulling off a prison break. In doing so the lovebirds cross Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) seemingly, blemishing her solid penitentiary record- Ma won’t have that going unanswered for. After the moral cost of stopping Bonnie and Clyde is quickly discussed between Ma and prison director Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch), Texas sets retired Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) on their trail.
After decades of romanticized depictions of Bonnie and Clyde, a partisan segment of the American people have felt disdain towards the law enforcement and the amount of force they used to take down the couple. The innocent lives taken by Bonnie and Clyde are too often forgotten or swept under the rug. The Highwaymen takes the Robin Hood aspect of the couple and resolves them into the deadly pair affected families know them to be. At the SXSW premiere Director John Lee Hancock personally dedicated his film to Frank Hamer Jr., feeling that previous representations of Hamer “[were] such an atrocity and injustice that we wanted to set it right”.
Costner stated that he felt privileged playing the role, putting it up in the ranks of playing Wyatt Earp. He added how important he felt it was when portraying someone’s real life saying, “the opportunity to play people that are willing to stand in front of us – police, sheriffs and whatever area you [may be] talking about is something I take really, really seriously. I hope we all do because they go out and sometimes we never know if they are ever coming back home”.
Though the film is to be released by Netflix, it is made for the big screen. Cinematographer John Schwartzman does a brilliant job of displaying the Texas landscape through wide angle lenses giving The Highwaymen a western touch. Using natural light and framing, Texas figures Hamen and his partner Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) are given the screen portrayal they deserve as figures of their time. By no means are these characters perfect. It’s obvious these retired Rangers are past their prime and hardly ready for action. Despite the public enduring the stagnant hardships of the Great Depression, police methods and innovations have evolved since the last time Hamer and Gault saw action. The common trope of older generations mixing with new technology is tactfully used as fodder for comic relief. The fact that it is the technology of 1934 sanitizes the humor from overuse or from taking an easy jab at millenials. In actuality, the punchy lines direct attention to the polished set detail throughout the film.
With the film’s crew dedicated to telling an honest story it is unsurprising that they went as far as to film on the very same roads upon which the hunt took place. Classic car enthusiasts will find themselves satisfied with 1934 V8 Fords featured in pristine condition on open, dusty roads. Even more satisfying is Hancock and writer John Fusco leave room for an open throttle scene. 1934 V8 top speeds of about 65 mph hinders availability for any fast and furious moves, nevertheless the chase is part of a healthy pace in the film’s story arc.
The Highwaymen is ultimately a drama about morality. Hamer and Gault are hired to get the job done by any means necessary and they did not survive as Texas Rangers by sticking to the rules. Costner and Harrelson deliver truehearted performances based on pieces of archetypes we have seen them play before. Together they communicate the solemn burden of carrying out the law by playing two sides of the same coin. Costner plays Hamer as reserved and determined, while Harrelson is the less than well-adjusted Gault delivering quips and serving as a moral compass. Kathy Bates, though given considerably less screen time, effectively embodies the first woman Governor of Texas, “Ma” Ferguson. With scenes of Ma before the press and behind closed doors, Bates builds a character that demands reverence. What the film lacks in action it makes up for in its characters’ convictions.
For some time media has been part of a chicken or the egg argument. Do their cover stories create a love of and normalize the actions of dangerous people? Or does the public’s thirst to live vicariously demand that they have such stories to relate to? In the same way that making an anti-war film is making a war film, Hancock’s The Highwaymen is an anti-outlaw film. This telling of the story brings the audience into a reality that does not allow room for them to cheer on its villains. Instead, it invites them to appreciate real individuals who do their own law bending to put a stop to a killing spree. For decades Hollywood played Bonnie & Clyde as a loving couple just trying to get by and beat the boredom of the times all the while making villains of their captors. The Highwaymen offers a fair account to balance the record, focusing on the valor of the men who left the safety of retirement to face the deadliest outlaws of their time. The Highwaymen is available to see in select theaters in Austin and will be available for streaming this March 29.