John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen has a bone to pick with the myth of the murderous bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, especially as perpetuated by Arthur Penn’s 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. Penn portrayed Bonnie and Clyde—played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty at what may perhaps be the zenith of their sex appeal—as, well, movie stars, suggesting that they were the Depression era’s embodiment of the counterculture. More smitten with the free-associative audacity of the French New Wave than with anything having to do with 1930s-era Americana, Penn fashioned a troubling ultraviolent comedy that deconstructs its own inherent obsession with sex, violence, and celebrity.
Penn lures the audience into enjoying Bonnie and Clyde’s rebellion against a government that appears to be doing nothing about its populace’s poverty, only to periodically shatter the spell when the protagonists kill someone. Bonnie and Clyde’s bloody murder scenes are some of the most influential in American cinema, paving the way for Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, which would, among other things, help to invent the modern action genre. Yet it’s that rebellious spell—that illusion of every-person glamour, as if icons like Dunaway and Beatty could ever actually represent any of us—that truly animates Bonnie and Clyde. The film eventually asks the audience to sympathize with Bonnie and Clyde’s brutal roadside execution, which Penn renders as a galvanizing bloodbath, though by this point he’s seemingly forgotten the lives that Bonnie and Clyde themselves have taken along the way.
Bonnie and Clyde’s chief executioner, a former Texas Ranger named Frank Hamer, was reduced by Penn and actor Denver Pyle to a redneck dolt—a readymade symbol of The Man. By contrast, Hamer is the protagonist of The Highwaymen, and he’s played by Kevin Costner with a weighty solemnity that’s meant to suggest that a record is being set straight. Never mind that the Texas Rangers have their own blood on their hands, particularly in their role in killing Native Americans and Mexicans—in Hancock’s film they nevertheless represent the bedrock American decency that’s been tainted by subversives like Bonnie and Clyde.
In some ways, The Highwaymen is as cagey as Bonnie and Clyde. John Fusco’s script alludes to the Rangers’ violent past in moody monologues mostly so that we may forgive it and move on to identifying with Hamer’s righteous restoration of the status quo. And Bonnie and Clyde are rendered as monstrous phantoms, visually bolstering Hamer’s on-screen claim of their inhumanity; they’re reduced to menacing signifiers, the way that Hamer was in Penn’s film.
In fairness, The Highwaymen’s reactionary rage is partially justifiable. Our culture’s hero worship of Bonnie and Clyde is appalling, reflecting the uneasy similarities between rebellion and fascism. People are prone to admire those who do whatever they like—whether they are robbers, cops, or elected officials—because such self-absorption vicariously gratifies our own frustrations. But Hancock and Fusco go on to rhyme this fatuous and morally corrupt hero worship with seemingly everything else that sticks in their craw, particularly innovations—radio, scientific detective work—that they perceive to have interfered with their fantasy of America as a place of backyard porches and stolid white men maintaining order with their God-given instincts. (This film makes the usual anti-intellectual sport, for instance, of the F.B.I., and there’s a pointed reference to the liberal propensity for taxes.)
The Highwaymen does have a peculiar, dogged intensity though, as Hancock is also willing to confront the chilling ramifications of his conservative fantasia. No pretense is ever maintained by any character here—including Governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) and Texas Department of Corrections Chief Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch)—that Hamer has been hired for any purpose other than to put Bonnie and Clyde down like feral dogs, partially as payback for the embarrassment of the Eastham prison farm raid. Partnering with an old compatriot, Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), Hamer proceeds to build an arsenal and to track the fugitives down with painstaking devotion to detail. Bonnie and Clyde’s crime spree cuts a circular incision through the Midwest, and so Hamer and Gault track them in relentless circles. In the film’s niftiest metaphor, Hamer and Gault wind up chasing Bonnie and Clyde into a field, the two cars doing donuts around one another until the lawmen are literally left in the dust.
In a surprisingly unsentimental performance, Costner plays Hamer as a man who yearns to kill Bonnie and Clyde partly for representing an America that’s leaving man’s-man cowboys like him behind. (Harrelson is less distinguished here, reprising his performance from True Detective’s first season, similarly lancing this film’s brooding with comic relief.) And Hancock bolsters Costner’s commanding straightforwardness with almost poignantly worshipful hero poses and with a bloody climax that serves as an inverse of Bonnie and Clyde’s famous ending. Where that film is gloriously tragic, this one is blunt and anti-climactically savage, fulfilling as well as somewhat critiquing Hamer’s bloodlust. Hancock’s stodgy classicism can’t compete with Penn’s fluid, morally unmooring poetry. Whatever its issues, Bonnie and Clyde is still a form-shattering masterpiece, while The Highwaymen’s commitment to the forthright tedium of old-fashioned westerns and crime procedurals is just, well, tedious.
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