In 1934, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker drove into an ambush in Bienville Parish, Louisiana. They had come there with the intent of laying low while visiting fellow gang member Henry Methvin’s family home. A number of policemen — and two Texas Rangers — opened fire on them as their stolen car sped down a country road. We know that, by the time they were taken down, the duo had been on a two-year-long crime wave. We know that they had become folk heroes, worshipped by a public who viewed them as modern-day Robin Hoods and who ate up Parker’s poems when they were published in newspapers. We also know that “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” apparently played every time they killed someone and that they looked exactly like Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. They were media creations in life. They continued to be so long after the hot-lead party.
Thanks to Arthur Penn’s groundbreaking 1967 movie, we have a certain image of these beautiful, young, homicidal killers. As for the two Lone Star state lawmen that were primarily responsible for sending the couple to meet their maker, well, they’re not quite as well know outside of certain circles — even if one of them is the single most legendary Texas Ranger in the history of the organization. John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen wants to rectify this situation. It has not come to praise Bonnie and Clyde; it has come to bury them, or at least part of their myth, but that isn’t the primary goal. Rather, this conservative corrective wants to focus on the real heroes, rather than the antiheroes, of this story. It strives to give Frank Hamer and Maney Gault top billing in the history books, as well their own epic tale of Tommy Guns and Model T car chases and dapper hats. The fact that it does this in a sort of generic classic-cinema mode will thrill some folks and frustrate others. “They don’t make ’em like this anymore” will be used as both a compliment and an insult. Both interpretations apply.
What’s indisputable, however, is that it’s the good guys who get the marquee-name, movie-star treatment this time around. We’ve already seen Barrow stage an elaborate prison break for his old partners in crime, Parker let off machine-gun rounds in a field and Kathy Bates’ Ma Ferguson bemoaning the bad press of it all by the time we finally meet Hamer — and damned if he doesn’t look like Kevin Costner. The Untouchables‘ leading man has aged into his weathered, eminence grise period like a fine claret, the kind of actor for whom grizzled cowboys and flint-hard badgeholders are a perfect, boot-cut fit. Give the man a Texas Ranger role that combines both, and watch him work that old-school stoic male thing to a tee. In fact, it’s hard not to view his retired Hamer, dragged back into duty and taking to it once again like a hound bred to hunt, as Eliot Ness with a Texas twang. The best thing about The Highwaymen by a long shot is seeing Costner tap back into that Gary Cooper mode he once perfected and add older, wiser touches to it. (You could say the same thing about his Succession-only-it’s-on-a-cattle-ranch TV show from last year, Yellowstone.)
That, and the double act he forms with his costar. After consulting with his long-suffering wife (bless you for doing what you can with so little, Kim Dickens), Frank heads to Lubbock for guns — lots of them — and his old partner, Maney Gault. This is where Woody Harrelson comes in. Comic relief, equally cranky old cuss, fellow hick for the city-slicker feds to underestimate: He is the Ying to Hamer’s Yang, one perfectly capable of shoving a switchblade-wielding punk’s head into a toilet. More importantly, he’s also the man’s conscience, the one who keeps reminding his friend that an insistence about dead or alive not being an option may be taking a moral toll on him. “She’s such an itty-bitty thing,” Gault says, laying out one of Parker’s dresses when they come upon the gang’s hideout. The look that Harrelson gives follows that statement, which suggests a profound regret that they’re going to have to pull the trigger, suggests a nuance that the rest of the film only flirts with. It’s too busy getting the gents settled into a nice groove of bantering and being what The Wire‘s McNulty called “good police,” sussing out crime scenes and running down suspects and staking out houses. If you build a pattern-based dragnet, they will come.
It’s not a coincidence that the faces of the outlaws themselves are rarely seen, that the camera obscures their visages or keeps them out of focus; they have had enough of the limelight, the movie suggests. (They even give Bonnie a pronounced limp, the result of a injury right before our story picks up their trail — her Dunaway glamour done away with.) When we finally do get a full-fledged look at these gangsters, it’s the logical conclusion to the tension-release schematic that’s been fueling the narrative’s momentum. And it’s partially to emphasize that they were just kids, less a product of their time than of both burgeoning tabloid and youth cultures. That last one in particular is a real bee in the movie’s bonnet: The most inadvertently funny scene involves Costner driving down the highway, spotting a water tower with pro-Bonnie and Clyde graffiti, then almost getting run off the road by a bunch of joyriding youngsters. You can practically hear him thinking, You damn kids, ruining this fine country of ours! Get off the highway and, just for good measure, my lawn! (Let’s not even get into how it treats Thomas Mann’s dim, smitten twentysomething policeman.)
So no, this isn’t your hippie pinko father’s take on the Barrow/Parker story, though it may be your grandfather’s, and is definitely your great-grandfather’s. And you don’t have to be AARP-aged to appreciate what Costner and Harrelson are doing, or to audibly squeal when character actors like W. Earl Brown and John Carroll Lynch show up, or to be impressed by the period-piece production design and John Schwartzman’s tony cinematography. As for digging the distinct law-and-order vibe, however, it may help if you voted for Nixon twice. The Highwaymen does what it needs to in terms of handing the spotlight over to the men who ended “that jackass and his girlfriend’s” reign of terror and reminding us that “Robin Hood never shot a gas attendant point blank in the face for four dollars.” If you think of it as an other-side-of-the-story act of reclamation — a response track — it succeeds. Asking any more of this “when men were men” [insert weary sigh here] throwback is likely to earn you nothing more than a steely, Costner-stye stare of contempt.