SXSW Film Review: ‘The Highwaymen’

Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson are well-matched as the men who caught Bonnie and Clyde in this revisionist version of the gangster couple’s mythos.

Director:
John Lee Hancock
With:
Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson, Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, Kim Dickens, Thomas Mann, William Sadler, W. Earl Brown, Emily Brobst, Edward Bossert.
Release Date:
Mar 15, 2019

Rated R  2 hours 12 minutes

Official Site: https://www.netflix.com/title/80200571

Arriving more than a half-century after Arthur Penn’s violent folk-ballad “Bonnie and Clyde” tapped into the zeitgeist and caught lightning in a bottle by portraying the Depression-era gangster couple in a manner that recast them as anti-establishment rebels, “The Highwaymen” aims to set the record straight with a respectfully celebratory depiction of the two lawmen most responsible for ending their bloody crime wave. Bosley Crowther, among others, likely would have approved of such revisionism. Still, this workman-like Netflix production — set to kick off a limited theatrical run March 15 before streaming March 29 — commands attention less as historical counterpoint than as a sturdy showcase for the neatly balanced lead performances of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson.

While Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are represented here more or less as fleetingly glimpsed abstractions, embodied by Emily Brobst and Edward Bossert in the manner of anonymous re-enactors in a cable-TV historical documentary, legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer and his redoubtable sidekick Maney Gault are vividly and approvingly depicted as aged but not obsolete old-school heroes who manfully rise to the occasion when younger, cockier, and better-equipped federal agents and state police officers prove unable to track down the trigger-happy criminals after Bonnie helps Clyde and an accomplice escape a Texas prison farm in 1934.

Working from an efficiently straightforward screenplay by John Fusco (“Hildalgo”), “The Alamo” director John Lee Hancock uses brisk, broad brushstrokes during early scenes of exposition: Years after disbanding the Texas Rangers to make way for a new generation of law-enforcement personnel, Lone Star state governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates), stung by bad publicity and angered by public adulation afforded Bonnie and Clyde, accepts advice from Texas Prison System chief Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) to call Hamer out of retirement and give him “highwayman” status to ramrod his own manhunt. Hamer — who, truth to tell, doesn’t need much convincing to figuratively get back in the saddle, despite the concern of his supportive wife (Kim Dickens) — in turn enlists his old and fellow ex-Ranger Gault to join him on the hunt.

For long stretches thereafter, “The Highwaymen” relies almost entirely on the chemistry generated by Costner and Harrelson to sustain interest, as Hamer (memorably played as a far less complex character by Denver Pyle in Penn’s version) and Gault follow their guts and trust their instincts while methodically follow clues and connect dots overlooked by other lawmen using new-fangled crime-solving aids like wiretapping and aerial reconnaissance. Their approach is dogged, even plodding, but it’s obvious that they couldn’t work much faster if they tried: Each man is thick around the waist and easily winded during foot chases. (Gault needs to take frequent bathroom breaks, a running gag that somehow never gets tiresome.) And yet, not unlike John Wayne during his late-period films, both men can manhandle younger guys who need manhandling when the need arises. It’s just that, in their case, they have more frequent need to back up their fists with brandished weapons.

It’s not difficult to imagine an alternative version of “The Highwaymen” in which the concept of old-timers hunting bad guys is played for laughs (think “The Sunshine Boys” armed with tommy guns) and these same two lead players coasting through with easygoing aplomb. But Hancock takes his cue from the somber, almost elegiac tone of Fusco’s script — which reportedly was considered years ago as a vehicle for Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

As a result, Costner and Harrelson spend a good deal of time discussing the responsibilities that weigh heavily upon them as they continue their manhunt, and their differing yet ultimately complementary philosophies regarding violent responses to violent criminals. Costner is the more dour of the pair, though he is allowed more than his fair share of dryly humorous remarks, while Harrelson is freer to fling frequent wisecracks, and the mix is most entertaining. But each actor gets to deliver what are essentially dramatic soliloquies while describing mayhem that immutably shaped their characters. That might sound too corny by half, but Costner and Harrelson effectively infuse their words with world-weary conviction.

“The Highwaymen” boasts persuasive period detail across the board, yet features only a few scenes that can be described as conventionally exciting — and, of course, the climactic ambush of Bonnie and Clyde, almost as bloody as the one in Penn’s 1967 movie, is one of them. Arguably more impressive, however, is a high-speed car chase across dusty flatlands that ends with Hamer and Gault being outmaneuvered by their quarries. Gault is so embarrassed, he’s moved to question his and Hamer’s abilities. (“Maybe it ain’t in us no more.”) But Hamer remains resolved. He knows what they must do, even though neither he nor Gault take any apparent delight when the deed is done.

It should be noted, by the way, that “The Highwaymen” indicates the celebrity Bonnie and Clyde enjoyed during their brief lifetimes even more explicitly than Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” ever did. This is especially true during the film’s final moments, ending on exactly the right note for Hancock and Fusco’s take on the tale.

RELATED CONTENT:

SXSW Film Review: ‘The Highwaymen’

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Headliners), March 10, 2019. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 132 MIN.

Production: A Netflix release and production. Producer: Casey Silver. Executive producers: Michael J. Malone, John Lee Hancock, Woody Harrelson, Kevin Costner, Rod Lake.

Crew: Director: John Lee Hancock. Screenplay: John Fusco. Camera (color): John Schwartzman. Editor: Robert Frazen. Music: Thomas Newman.

With: Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson, Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, Kim Dickens, Thomas Mann, William Sadler, W. Earl Brown, Emily Brobst, Edward Bossert.

More Film

  • Gloria Allred clients suing Harvey Weinstein

    Are Harvey Weinstein's Accusers Planning to Sue? Gloria Allred Says 'This Is All Speculation'

    Gloria Allred is representing three of the six women who have testified in Harvey Weinstein’s criminal trial. The high-profile attorney has been accused by Weinstein’s legal team of having plans to sue the former Hollywood honcho after his rape trial concludes. During closing arguments, Weinstein’s lead attorney Donna Rotunno said Allred sits in court every [...]

  • Leo-Pakarati-and-Claudia-Huaiquimilla

    Chile's Indigenous Filmmakers Make Their Voices Heard

    Chilean indigenous communities are turning to film to portray their world values, social problems and identities. That’s the case for Leo Pakarati, of the Rapa Nui from Easter Island, and Mapuche Claudia Huaiquimilla. Both will present their recent works as case studies at the European Film Market’s Chile Country in Focus. Pakarati’s documentary plumbs the impact [...]

  • Chilean Producers

    10 Chilean Producers to Track

    Chilean producers to track, who will be forming part of the Berlinale’s 2020 Country in Focus dedicated to Chile. Five are well-known, another five on the rise : Up-and-coming María José Díaz  Dos Be Producciones An executive producer and investigative journalist for TV series and doc-features, Diaz is an executive producer at Dos Be Prods. [...]

  • Wes Anderson in the front rowPrada

    Wes Anderson to Attend 60th Annecy International Animation Film Festival

    Wes Anderson, the acclaimed filmmaker behind two of the generation’s best-loved stop-motion features: the Oscar-nominated feature “Ilse of Dogs” and 2010’s Annecy Cristal for a feature film-winner “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” will be in France this June to celebrate the Annecy International Animation Film Festival’s 60th anniversary. It’s Anderson’s first visit to Annecy. He was not in [...]

  • Berlin Film Festival

    Berlin Film Festival to Hold Minute of Silence for Victims in German Shooting

    The Berlin Film Festival has announced it will hold a minute of silence at its opening gala on Thursday for the victims of the shooting that took place in the German city of Hanau. “With great dismay and sorrow, the Berlinale learned of the fatal attack yesterday in Hanau,” the festival said in a statement. [...]

  • Berlinale 2020 Panel: "A Celebration of

    Berlin's Female Filmmakers Demand Funding Overhaul: 'Without Money, We Can't Do Anything'

    While the process of moving towards full gender parity at festivals remains a slow slog, it’s time to put money where the movement’s mouth is and make other types of tangible steps towards lifting up women’s voices, said speakers at a panel on female filmmaking jointly hosted by Studio Babelsberg, Canada Goose and Variety, moderated [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content