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Non-Review Review: The Highwaymen

The Highwaymen is an uneven and clumsy piece of work.

In many ways, The Highwaymen positions itself as a logical extension of the modern deconstructive western, the tales of men on the edge of the frontier grappling with the challenges of modernity. Sometimes, those stories are set in the old west as it faces massive social shifts; The Sisters Brothers is a recent, effective example. Sometimes, these stories unfold in a more contemporary setting featuring characters still processing how the world has moved past them; Hell or High Water may be the best of the recent examples. The Highwaymen positions itself somewhere on the spectrum between the two; an early scene has the Governor of Texas offering an elevator pitch for the entire film, “It’s 1934, Lee, and you wanna put cowboys on Bonnie and Clyde?”

This is the basic premise of The Highwaymen, and it is a good one. It is two different American archetypes thrown into stark opposition with one another, a story that pits two of the last cowboys in the old west against a newer and hungrier breed of American outlaw. The Highwaymen is the story of the two Texas Rangers drafted out of retirement to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde. Forget Monsters vs. Aliens or Cowboys and Aliens or Alien vs. Predator, this is a pop cultural match-up for the ages. It is cowboys versus gangsters. (It might be more accurate to describe Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow as “public enemies”, but “cowboys versus public enemies” is not quite so evocative.)

With all of this in mind, it is disappointing that The Highwaymen feels so hollow.

On paper, The Highwaymen has a lot to recommend it. Most obviously, this feels like it should be the perfect vehicle for Kevin Costner. Costner is an interesting figure, in the sense that it is hard to articulate just how big of a movie star he was only two-and-a-half decades ago. Costner was a star, and an especially charming one with some degree of versatility. He embodied a certain American masculine archetype, in projects as varied as Field of DreamsDances with WolvesJFK and The Bodyguard. He might not have aged as well as Tom Hanks into the role of respected cinematic elder, but it is impossible to see Costner’s face without thinking of a different Hollywood.

Costner has spent the last decade or so trying to navigate a shifting cultural landscape, acclimitising to the way things have changed since he was at the height of his powers. He took an against-type leading role in the indie Mister Brooks, accepted his status as a cinematic elder statesman with a supporting role in Man of Steel, even took the lead role in a semi-prestigious television show Yellowstone. In its own weird way, The Highwaymen might be argued to belong to this actor’s journey, with Costner offering a veneer of old-fashioned stardom to a streaming service release. With movies like Triple Frontier and Set It Up, Netflix have cornered the market on films that “they don’t make like this anymore.” Costner is a star that “they don’t use like this anymore.”

The connections suggest themselves. As the height of his appeal as a leading man, Costner was one of the last major Hollywood stars to push the western as a vital and urgent genre. While Clint Eastwood won an Oscar for picking over the remains of the genre in Unforgiven, Costner tried to find ways to keep the genre vital with movies like Dances With Wolves. In terms of conventional westerns, Costner has starred in the film Wyatt Earp and the miniseries Hatsfields and McCoys. It could also be argued that both of the movies that signalled the end of his career as a creative and commercial powerhouse, Waterworld and The Postman, were effectively attempts to update the western with a post-apocalyptic sheen. Even Yellowstone is a modern pseudo-western.

As such, The Highwaymen is a story populated with rich and potent imagery. One of the last of an older breed of movie stars plays one of the last cowboys stalking through the same true story that inspired one of the first (and most iconic) films of the New Hollywood era, a movie that is so out of place with the modern cinematic landscape that they only way to distribute it is on a highly modern streaming platform. There is something powerful and evocative underpinning The Highwaymen. There are even moments within the film that come close to capturing that sense of uncertainty about a changing world, often the silent shots of Costner as Frank Hamer, surveying the isolated wilderness of thirties America.

Indeed, one of the most interesting and refreshing aspects of The Highwaymen is the contempt that it has for Bonnie and Clyde as outlaw archetypes, rejecting the familiar comforts of the folk hero narrative. Most countries glamourise their killers and their bandits, romanticising those who rebel against the trappings of civilised society. This is particularly true in the United States, with a culture that has often obsessed over the heroism of frontier outlaws, big city gangsters, and even masked vigilantes. One of the more interesting trends of the modern western has been an urge to strip away the romance of the west and replace it with horror and revulsion in films like Bone Tomahawk, The Revenant, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs or The Hateful Eight.

In fact, the treatment of Bonnie and Clyde in The Highwaymen seems to recall the treatment afforded to the title characters in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. There is a fascination with the legend around Bonnie and Clyde, particularly in an era where the public felt abandoned by civil institutions and angry at the targets of these criminals. However, there is also an understanding of the raw brutality of these figures. In an early scene, Ma Ferguson is asked what she makes of the reputation that Bonnie and Clyde have cultivated as modern day “Robin Hoods.” She replies, “Did Robin Hood ever shoot a gas station attendant point blank in the head for four dollars and change and full tank of gas?”

The Highwaymen presents Bonnie and Clyde as something monstrous. The camera often obscures their faces. When their faces are visible, they are often out of focus or disguised in a quick cut. The characters have a handful of lines at most. Instead, the film fixates on their cruelty and violence. (Most obviously, it firmly rejects the assertion that Bonnie never actually killed a lawman, instead focusing on the character’s sadism and cruelty.) There is something very effective in the movie’s refusal to indulge in the fetishisation of these young killers, rejecting even the ambiguity that marked their portrayal in Bonnie and Clyde. It feels like a timely and pointed reappraisal, at a point in time when America is grappling with its own awkward nostalgia.

However, one of the issues with The Highwaymen is that it substitutes one form of nostalgia for another. While Bonnie and Clyde are portrayed as monstrous, the rogue cowboys on their trail are portrayed as unambiguously heroic. Frank Hamer and Maney Gault are already men out of time when the film begins, representatives of a bygone era and members of the then-disbanded Texas Rangers. (Indeed, the audience’s knowledge that the Texas Rangers will inevitably be reinstated suggests the film’s ultimate conclusion on the point.) The Highwaymen focuses on the toll that the job has taken on both Hamer and Gault, but never doubts that the work is necessary and righteous. Indeed, it seems openly contemptuous that the work might be done in any other way.

Hamer and Gault’s contempt for the emerging Federal Bureau of Investigation is a recurring joke, as the young organisation tries to operate a much more structured and formal process for bringing the wanted fugitives to justice. “Careful where you step, cowboy,” an FBI agent warns Gault as the pair wander through the site of a shooting. “It’s an active crime scene.” Gault is less than considerate. “Kiss my ass,” he responds, deliberately kicking up gravel to disturb any forensics.  Later in the film, the authorities heavy-handedly flub what should be a low-key sting operation. Gault looks to a plane flying overhead and sarcastically taunts, “How’s the view from up there, Mister Hoover?”

This is a rather clumsy approach to the material on a number of levels. Most obviously, it is incredibly cliché. Most of the plot and character beats in The Highwaymen seem like they might have been purchased in bulk. Gault has been all but psychologically destroyed by his work, but both Hamer and Gault thirst for adventure. The pair are assigned a clumsy younger partnered named Ted Hinton, who is nominally there to help them identify Clyde Barrows, but seems to actually hang around to learn from the two grizzled old war horses. Hamer and Gault like to get their hands dirty, and are not above roughing up witnesses to get results. Indeed, the climax of the film finds the pair teaming up with similarly trigger-happy Louisiana law enforcement.

The Highwaymen seems to follow the path of least resistance in terms of storytelling, occasionally feeling more like a parody of the genre than a straightforward example of it. At one point, Hamer and Gault follow their targets over state lines, overstepping their jurisdiction. Of course, justice know no jurisdiction, so they press ahead on the long and winding road. The sequence is not enough of itself, the film as to wrap a bow around it. The movie cuts dramatically to the Governor’s Office, where Ma Ferguson has just been informed that the pair have exceeded their mandate. “Where the hell are they?” she demands, without a hint of self-awareness.

This sort of broad clumsiness if woven into the fabric of The Highwaymen. Ironically for a film that longs to capture the sensibility of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, The Highwaymen is largely bereft of its own identity. This disappointing, if unsurprising; John Lee Hancock is hardly a director with a strong sense of identity. The Highwaymen is shaped and defined by cinematic depictions of the Great Depression from the late nineties and early years of the twenty-first century, chasing the mood and tone of films like The Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile or Road to Perdition. Indeed, the Thomas Newton soundtrack ultimately reinforces this point of comparison, a score that evokes the nineties much more than the thirties.

At the same time, the film’s nostalgia runs deeper than that. Although the movie is quick to condemn Bonnie and Clyde, it seems more concerned that they represent encroaching modernity rather than speaking to any long-simmering fascination with violence in the American character. There is a strange sense of moral panic to The Highwaymen, particularly as the narrative fixates on the way that the popular culture fixates upon these two outlaws. Of contemporary women’s fashions, Gault laments, “Bonnie Parker. I saw ten of them today.” Hamer sighs, “It’s the fashion.” A later attempt to arrest the pair is botched by crowds of eager young people, “Too many people, goddamn fanclub.”

The Highwaymen feels a little too eager and a little too insistent in its efforts to frame Bonnie and Clyde as something other and something monstrous. In the eyes of the film, Bonnie and Clyde are not simply an escalation, they are an aberration. When Hinton joins the team, Hamer warns him, “Those kids you grew up with aren’t human anymore.” The manner in which the film presents the two outlaws supports this assumption; even Bonnie’s limp is treated as something equivalent to the physical disfigurement associated with movie monsters. It is a very simplistic, and very comforting, definition of evil as something that exists outside a larger framework.

At one point, Hamer and Gault visit with Clyde’s father, who makes an argument that his son was failed by a system that marked him as a criminal for stealing a chicken. Hamer will hear none of this, recounting his own brush with the law as a young man, the point at which he was offered a choice between right and wrong. It is a simple and affirming narrative that offers a comforting black-and-white view of the world. It also seems very much in keeping with the film’s moral philosophy. Returning to the story of the stolen chicken that started Clyde down this dark path, Hamer challenges the father, “You ever think there was something in Clyde that made him steal that chicken in the first place?”

All of this is very trite and simplistic. There is nothing inherently wrong in that. There is something to be said for moral certainty and absolutism in a rapidly-changing world. The issue is that it feels out of place in a film that is playing with this big existential confrontation between two American archetypes on the highways and byways of the Southern United States. There is something very frustrating and underwhelming in all of this, a premise and a cast that deserve a much stronger execution than The Highwaymen can offer.

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2 Responses

  1. “Indeed, one of the most interesting and refreshing aspects of The Highwaymen is the contempt that it has for Bonnie and Clyde as outlaw archetypes, rejecting the familiar comforts of the folk hero narrative. […] In an early scene, Ma Ferguson is asked what she makes of the reputation that Bonnie and Clyde have cultivated as modern day “Robin Hoods. She replies, “Did Robin Hood ever shoot a gas station attendant point blank in the head for four dollars and change and full tank of gas?”

    So you’re saying that this is a Kevin Costner movie in which Americans try to play the part of Robin Hood, but trigger a backlash from critics who think they’re doing a very poor job of it?

    That’s very meta. I like it.

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