To call “The Highwaymen” revisionist — or even reactionary — would be an understatement. This retelling of the Bonnie and Clyde story is not content to posit that those two Depression-era outlaws got what they deserved when they died in a hail of bullets on a Louisiana back road. It has a sackful of bones to pick with the modern world as a whole. Violent criminals are a problem, yes, but so are movies, airplanes, car radios, women in politics, newspapers — you name it. If Grandpa Simpson could figure out how to get himself a Netflix subscription, this movie would be the whole algorithm. I’m here to say I didn’t entirely hate it.
As Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow rampage across a half-dozen states, the governor of Texas, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates), is persuaded by her head law enforcement honcho, Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch), to bring a couple of old Texas Rangers out of retirement. The governor has disbanded the Rangers and brags about raising taxes to replace them with a more up-to-date police force. J. Edgar Hoover is doing the same thing at the federal level, and while we never see Hoover’s face we do hear him called a “high-flying sissy” by one of our heroes.
Hoover’s men are smug, citified so-and-sos in trim suits who set great store by fancy crime-fighting techniques like fingerprint analysis, wiretaps, two-way radios and aerial surveillance. The ex-Rangers, reclassified as highway patrolmen for their new mission, prefer to rely on horse sense and cowboy folk wisdom. “Outlaws and mustangs always come home,” says Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner), the older, gruffer one. He reckons that Bonnie and Clyde will circle back to the Dallas neighborhood where they grew up. He’s mostly right, but the feds and other busybodies keep getting in the way.
The plan is not to take the fugitives alive. Before he sets out in pursuit — and before he’s joined by his erstwhile partner, Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) — Frank purchases a small arsenal at a Lubbock gun shop. Even though he’s a bit rusty on the draw, Frank is a professional, and he takes the job personally. Barrow and Parker’s slaughter of police officers enrages him, and he’s disgusted by the aura of Robin Hood chic that has gathered around them. Graffiti on a rural water tower reads “Go Bonnie and Clyde!” Young women sport berets in imitation of Bonnie’s signature look. “Coldblooded killers who are more adored than movie stars” is Lee Simmons’s assessment.
Directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) from a script by John Fusco, “The Highwaymen” offers itself as a corrective to one of the most famous — and in its day controversial — products of 1960s Hollywood. “Bonnie and Clyde” magnified the mystique of ’30s bank robbers by refracting it through the lens of counterculture revolt. This movie opposes that one with every fiber of its ornery being, including by its insistence on procedural tedium over cinematic excitement. It’s no less violent than “Bonnie and Clyde,” but it’s in a much worse mood.
“They aren’t human anymore,” Frank says, referring to the gun-crazy kids he’s determined to bring down. The filmmakers support this thesis by keeping Bonnie and Clyde’s faces offscreen until the very end. They’re meant to be monsters, but also ciphers and symbols of a world gone wrong.
Frank and Maney carry their own share of metaphorical baggage. American movies vacillate endlessly between the worship of lawmen and the romance of outlaws, but few are as dogmatically one-sided as this one. With all respect to Harrelson and Costner, they aren’t about to compete with 1967-vintage Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in the sex-appeal department. Hancock compensates by eliminating sex appeal altogether, replacing it with stubborn, grouchy belligerence.
This can be kind of touching — the spectacle of old guys muttering and wheezing can have that effect — and kind of fun, too. Frank, superfluously described as a “grump” by one of his wife’s genteel friends, lives in comfortable retirement with said wife (Kim Dickens, too briefly) and his pet javelina. Maney has it rougher, living in a shack on foreclosed land with his daughter and her family, with no job and a taste for liquor.
He’s the drinker. Frank, a crumpled pack of Luckies in his shirt pocket, is the smoker. Frank is the alpha: stern in his morality, steady in his judgment, slow to smile. Maney is the sidekick: jokey, annoying, troubled by his conscience and haunted by the memory of men he has killed. He doesn’t like the idea of shooting a woman, or gunning down a man without warning.
His sensitivity provides a foil for Frank’s unbending righteousness, and also an alibi for bleeding-heart viewers who might find themselves enjoying this tale of rough justice in spite of themselves. Costner and Harrelson generally give pretty good value. This isn’t an especially good movie — it’s too long, too drenched in Thomas Newman’s cloyingly eclectic score, too full of speechifying and self-regard — but it is a coherent one, with the courage of its vengeful, murderous, politically terrifying convictions.
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Rated R. Killing. Running time: 2 hours 12 minutes.
The movie arrives on Netflix on March 29.
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