The Highwaymen has a point to make that could seem rather quaint. This true story about the hunt for 1930s outlaws Bonnie and Clyde by a couple of retired Texas Rangers invites the modern audience to examine the integrity of our heroes. As Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) pursue the mythologised Robin Hood figures, they are impeded by the public’s unquestioning adoration that ignores the truth about the criminal celebrities: Bonnie and Clyde are remorseless murderers. The point being we need to stop idolising people who don’t deserve it. And here, it takes a couple of old men to see the madness around them.
It feels pretty uncool, pretty “kids these days!”. So, director John Lee Hancock and his producers have been clever – they’ve cast leads we will believe. Costner is the great American icon, an actor who radiates sincerity, here in the part of the uncompromising leader of the hunt. Harrelson, as usual, provides enough irony and self-abasement in his grin that he is a master of winning over the sceptic.
In 1967, Bonnie and Clyde’s sexiness and balletic portrayal of violence made it one of the first masterpieces of the New Hollywood. The Highwaymen completely avoids this approach. There’s nothing fun about violence. It’s depicted as devastating and wrong, even when it’s being perpetrated by our heroes. Which is the freshest thing about this take on the chase movie.
Hamer and Gault doubt themselves. They are conscious of the struggles of their times, the poverty and dissatisfaction of those around them burdened by the Great Depression. They question whether they should hate their enemy, whether the world is divided into good people and bad people. And they count the cost of their “righteous” violence. Their “just” actions have made Hamer hard, and Gault broken, and they know it. This makes The Highwaymen, an otherwise very conventional movie, feel slightly radical.
It may be overselling a rather old-fashioned movie by the director of other middle-brow fare like The Blind Side. So, let’s just say that a strong script, an excellent score by the always great Thomas Newman, solid design and filmmaking, and star power have provided a total that is pretty much the sum of its parts. Unlike other recent Netflix disappointments like Triple Frontier and Unicorn Store, The Highwaymen thoughtfully uses its talents like it should.