Netflix’s new original film The Highwaymen has a lot going for it. It has a cool premise, some heavy-hitters in front of and behind the camera and the supportive structure of the streaming giant with seemingly bottomless pockets. Too bad it’s as dull as dishwater.
Story-wise it sounds like it should be great. It focuses on the other side of the Bonnie and Clyde story, following the aging ex-Texas Rangers who were brought in to hunt down the famous criminal duo. The idea of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson playing the law that tracks and kills two of our most famous outlaws in what could ostensibly be a companion film to Warren Beatty‘s classic Bonnie and Clyde is a really cool one.
Costner and Harrelson play ex-partners in the Texas Rangers who reunite with a little something to prove to the young hotshot CIA kids with their gadgets and tricks as they track Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow all across the south. They also have something to prove to Governor Ma Ferguson (played with great energy and charm by Kathy Bates), the politician who disbanded the Texas Rangers citing their lawless old ways of things as a detriment to law enforcement, not a benefit. However, she’s forced to recruit these two when she finds the more stringent law in place in Texas is not quite up to the task of stopping the killer couple.
Bates’ Ma Ferguson is probably the strongest, most colorful and interesting character in the movie, but she’s only in a handful of scenes. The majority of the movie is squarely on the two old cowboys leading the hunt.
For their part, Costner and Harrelson carry their weight. There’s just little to no personality to the film outside of their performances. From editing to shot selection to camera movement the thing is competent, but basic. The cinematography is pretty good at eliciting the era, but it’s monotonous. There’s little variety to the daytime scenes and no mood whatsoever in the evening scenes.
Even the great cast is let down at times by a screenplay that is a bit on the hammy side and stops at multiple awkward points to let a character monologue about the themes on display before returning to the task at hand.
There is one part of the film where this stopping-in-their-tracks moments works and that’s when Costner’s Frank Hamer meets Clyde’s daddy, Henry Barrow (played by the great character actor William Sadler of Shawshank Redemption, Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey fame) and they have a talk about who his boy was and the man he became.
I wish there were more moments like this in movie. It has such a great cast that feels so wasted on standard exposition-to-move-the-plot-along scene after scene. This scene between Costner and Sadler is two great actors bouncing off each other in surprising ways. It’s the most dynamic scene in the movie. And unfortunately it highlights how non-dynamic the rest of the movie around it is.
The film also has a pretty striking pro-authoritarian streak that was surprising to me. The script really showcases Bonnie and Clyde as bloodthirsty monsters and treats the young fans of theirs with clear disdain. That’s to be expected, I suppose. They weren’t good people. They killed lawmen and the point of view of this film is from lawmen, so Bonnie and Clyde were never going to be treated as heroes. However it is pretty shocking how strongly caricatured that violence is and how much the film itself condemns the youth of the time that thought of Bonnie and Clyde as modern day Robin Hoods.
There’s only passing mention that at this point banks were foreclosing on the poorest of the poor and putting honest, hard-working families out on the street, and these two hoodlums were seen as taking back the money the banks stole from the working man. By glossing over that aspect, the film makes it seem like the youth adored these two for killing cops, which isn’t exactly the truth and only serves to underline a good cop versus snotty dipshit kids friction that just frankly left a bad taste in my mouth.
Director John Lee Hancock‘s work throughout the years (The Blind Side, The Alamo, The Rookie) has been solid and competent, but not necessarily exciting, and The Highwaymen is no different.
I want to give this film props for going back to an older, slower way of telling a story like this, but it just hits so many familiar notes that any credit I’d give it is erased by my waning interest in what’s going on up on the screen. I want to say it’s worth it just to see Costner back in an Eliot Ness style role, but his character is so vanilla and arc-less that I feel like he was let down.
This might be one to throw on and watch with your dad or grandpa. I have a feeling grandpas of the world will love this movie, which does feel like the cinematic equivalent of the row of Clancy, McMurtry and Ludlum paperbacks every grandfather has in their study. But it was a swing and a miss for me, y’all.