Review: The Highwaymen (2019)


Like many of John Lee Hancock’s films, such as The Blind Side and The Founder, The Highwaymen is a handsome, middlebrow drama that has one foot in tradition and the other in revisionism. In one sense, it offers a necessary revision to the cult of Bonnie and Clyde, best captured in Arthur Penn’s iconic film from 1967. Instead of celebrating the two criminals’ youthful bravado and exploring the motivation for their killing spree as Penn’s film does, The Highwaymen strips them of any and all personality, transforming them into something akin to serial killers, merciless and evil. In their place, it inserts two Texas Rangers, Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, played by Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, who bring back cowboy justice in tracking down and killing the criminal paramours. 

With these two stars, the film becomes something of an old-fashioned buddy cop film about two past-their-prime lawmen. But again, that is not the entire picture. The tension between the revisionist drama and the buddy cop action film makes it more than straightforward entertainment, but the inability to ultimately reconcile the two approaches holds it back from reaching its potential. This is the case with most of Hancock’s work. Still, there’s worth in The Highwaymen. A part of this is that Hancock makes an honest-to-God middlebrow movie. Nowadays, so many stories of this type have migrated to television and lost their visual and narrative style in the process. But Hancock doesn’t extend the narrative past its natural length and understands that this particular story is better suited to film than television.

Although thematically uneven, The Highwaymen is well shot, edited, and acted. It moves quickly, despite running over two hours (pacing is among the surest indicators of whether a director is suited to film or television). It also has enough interesting things to say about the time period and the type of men at its centre to make up for the almost complete lack of novelty in the approach. For one, while it is strange to say that a film that deliberately turns back to classical modes of storytelling is revisionist, The Highwaymen is revisionist in terms of cinematic storytelling. It revises the counter-cultural approach emblematic of New Hollywood and embraces more old-fashioned notions of lawmen and the Western. Furthermore, the myth of Bonnie and Clyde as Robin Hoods of the 1930s has always been hard to dissipate, and the film works hard to set the record straight about the reality of their crimes.

For instance, we don’t see Bonnie and Clyde’s faces for much of the film, but instead witness the bodies left in their wake. A recurring visual approach is Hancock showing Bonnie exit their car in extreme wide shot, only cutting close to show her dragging her injured leg, all decked out in the most fashionable shoes and stockings imaginable, before cutting back to the wide shot to show her shoot an injured officer in the head. It epitomizes the two interests of the film: violence and glamour. This small, dolled-up woman is a murderer; she is both glamorous and dangerous. This is a good example of middlebrow artistry: a clear artistic statement made in a straightforward manner.

At the core of the film is an exploration of violence. This approach is akin to Hancock’s exploration of greed at the centre of The Founder, his underrated look at how Ray Kroc made McDonald’s into the biggest food company in the world after stealing the company from its founders. Hancock trades in Americana and Western conventions, which is appropriate since the Western is the defining American myth. Here, one of the most popular cowboy actors of the past 30 years, Kevin Costner, completes a transformation from the quintessential sensitive leading man of the late 80s and early 90s to the gruff old man who represents an outdated mode of masculinity. He’s no longer Ray Kinsella of Field of Dreams and more Clint Eastwood. While it may seem odd to have Costner be so gruff, the approach is deliberate because the men of Frank Hamer’s generation were not soft, no matter the psychological depths they held. They were defined by hardness and the capacity for violence in a world where survival was no guarantee. However, even in the world of 1934, when the film is set, they are seen as something of a relic by the first female Texan governor, Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates), and the other lawmen of the time.

The Highwaymen is most interesting when it contrasts the violence of Hamer and Gault with the violence of Bonnie and Clyde. Hamer and Gault’s violence is distinctly masculine, two cowboys riding into battle with six shooters, while Bonnie and Clyde’s violence is seen as more feminine, with flash and subterfuge. It is no accident that Bonnie was more popular than Clyde, and that her name always came first. Throughout the film, we’re shown and told how awful Bonnie and Clyde are for the violence they commit. However, nothing we see from Bonnie and Clyde is as horrifying as a story Gault tells late in the film about him and Hamer ambushing a bunch of Mexican bandits and massacring the men while they slept. They were lauded as heroes and given medals by the governor, and now see themselves hunting down Bonnie and Clyde, intent on killing them for killing far fewer men than they did that night.

Hamer and Gault were celebrated by society in the past, but in the 1930s, they’re too old-fashioned for the modern world and set out to pasture. They only come back when their no-nonsense violence is needed to put down a new kind of violence, that of Bonnie and Clyde. And it’s interesting that they only kill Bonnie and Clyde by borrowing their very own subterfuge, by forgoing the kind of honest, face-to-face violence that is emblematic of the Old West and cowboys. But of course, if you pay attention to Gault’s story about killing the Mexicans, you realize that the old manner of violence was never honest. They shot the men while they slept because it guaranteed success.

While they are no longer celebrated for being violent (partially to reflect our current society’s moral approach to violence), Hamer and Gault assuredly once were, and as we see throughout the film, Bonnie and Clyde are also celebrated for their violence in the midst of their spree. In one scene, they’re mobbed by admirers while visiting a small town pharmacy, as if the most famous movie stars on the planet had rolled into town. At the end of the film, after they’ve been killed, an even larger crowd mobs their car and corpses, trying to touch a piece of their glory and glamour. The point of the film seems to be that no matter how attitudes towards violence change in America, the violence will never go away or be anything less than essential to how the country sees itself. It’s core to the American myth personified by both the Texas Rangers and Bonnie and Clyde. All that changes is that one style of violence gives way to another, one presentation goes out of fashion as another comes in.

These are not new ideas, and they are not always gracefully explored in the film, but they are at least present here amidst the dueling dialogue between Costner and Harrelson, shootouts, and car chases. In fact, the tension between past and present, between the transition of modes of violence and mythmaking, is straight out of the historical romance novel, which has been popular in America for centuries. Hancock could do more than merely present the tension here; he could put it front and centre. But he’s not that kind of director.

Hancock is always capable of seeing more than the surface of his stories, but his focus is always more on entertainment than commentary. And that’s fine. There is a place for confident, middlebrow Americana that satisfies on a basic level while also scratching at the tensions beneath the surface.

7 out of 10

The Highwaymen (2019, USA)

Directed by John Lee Hancock; written by John Fusco; starring Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson, Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, Kim Dickens, Thomas Mann, William Sadler.