The Highwaymen is marketed as being based on the “untold true story” of “the legends who took down Bonnie and Clyde.” While on the surface, John Lee Hancock’s latest film is all about the politics surrounding the capture of two of America’s most notorious criminals, in many ways, it feels like a story that didn’t need to be told as it rehashes the same old tale of how Bonnie and Clyde lived and died.
The film follows two legendary lawmen, Frank Hamer and Maney Gault (Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson) who are hired for the seemingly impossible task of ending Bonnie and Clyde’s (Emily Brobst and Edward Bossert) trail of bloodshed. We don’t learn very much about the two men, but know that both are retired—Hamer living comfortably in domestic life, while Gault is living in poverty with his daughter and grandson. They are both regarded as legendary gunslingers, who famously killed over 50 men in a single night. Comparisons between them and the criminals they chase are brought up throughout the film, but both live with regrets and remorse that haunts them. The decision to go after Bonnie and Clyde is not an easy one to make, as both men are past their prime, barely able to run without passing out and can’t even shoot a gun straight. Texas governor, Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates), says that they might as well “go dig up Wyatt Earp.”
The Highwaymen is a solid effort narratively, with its lush cinematography really sticking out, and Costner and Harrelson are a great duo to spend 90 minutes with. It’s a slow burn, but while sometimes that’s a good thing, in this case, it makes the story drag. The film is at its best when the cat and mouse game really gets going—when Hamer and Gault, chasing Bonnie and Clyde across state lines, close in, but lose them, and begin to doubt if they have the strength to continue.
A film that starts and ends with a sea of bullets, The Highwaymen keeps the infamous criminals shrouded in mystery, the camera never lingers on them for long, and their faces are kept shadowed. The investigation is definitely not as entertaining as following Bonnie and Clyde on their crime spree, but they still remain the most vital part of the story. And the most interesting element the film presents is how the pair are treated as Robin Hood-esque figures. The support for them is really what hinders the investigation. They are cheered on for robbing banks and killing authority figures who suppress the poverty-stricken towns and people that cover for them. When their bullet-ridden car rolls into Arcadia, Louisiana, it’s mobbed, as fans reach in and tug on their blood-soaked corpses. The fanfare surrounding the pair is shocking to witness and begs the question, what about criminals brings on such twisted attraction and idolization?
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