When I first heard about The Highwaymen, I was stoked because of the cast and what looked like a legitimate reason to revisit the story of Bonnie and Clyde (let’s not talk about the 2013 miniseries). Unlike Alex, I’m not much for true crime stories, and the gangster film genre isn’t one of my favorites either, but Bonnie and Clyde have always captured my attention and imagination. I would someday love to take a trip where I just stop at sites visited or robbed by Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. In short then, I am part of the reason The Highwaymen got made. I am part of the problem. I have also spent more than a decade re-watching the 1967 film and learning everything I can about its production, its impact on pop culture and its inaccuracies. So I was intrigued to see how this film would try to right the wrongs, so to speak, of the Arthur Penn classic.
The script, a long-in-the-works project by John Fusco, focuses on the efforts of Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), two Texas Rangers who helped track down Bonnie and Clyde. If Frank Hamer sounds familiar to you, he should. He was portrayed by Denver Pyle in the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde film. The characterization of this famed lawman was one of a mean spirited and incompetent buffoon. He stumbles upon Bonnie and Clyde, is briefly captured and humiliated by being forced to pose in a photo with the criminals, and then helps track the two down in order to exact vengeance. This was Hollywood BS. Hamer’s family sued Warner Bros. and received an out of court settlement in 1971.
According to Variety, Director John Lee Hancock was attracted to Fusco’s script as a correction to the earlier film’s portrayal of Hamer. That’s a noble and engaging premise. As much I am attracted to the mythology of Bonnie & Clyde, I am aware that much of what the 1967 film portrays is based on exaggerated media accounts and the legend that lived long after the dou’s bloody spree had ended. Hancock himself may not be the best person to correct another filmmaker’s artistic license. He is, after all, the man behind The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks, which are also glaring examples of mythical history. But this is a story that deserves to be examined from different perspectives.
Unfortunately, the script and the direction both provide a bland and almost trite recounting of Hamer and Gault’s hunt for the famed killers. The film opens with a clumsily shot action sequence. Some of this is due to Hancock’s desire not to show Bonnie Parker’s face, a tactic he keeps up until the film’s second half. We only see her face once while she is alive, and it is in a moment when all we see is a cold-blooded killer. For those of us used to seeing Faye Dunaway stare affectionately at Warren Beatty, it’s a jarring stylistic choice, one that de-emphasizes the mythology but also results in awkward filming during the film’s few shootouts.
The decision to focus on Hamer and Gault’s interviews with witnesses and relatives rather than car chases and bank robberies is a legitimate choice, but to make that work, the script needed to flesh out the two lawmen more, and there is very little in terms of personality to distinguish the two. They are straight-laced lawmen, perhaps a bit past their prime. We learn Hamer has done more killing, but that’s about it. Instead of exposition that helps round out these characters, we just get countless discussions of bullets, guns and previous manhunts. They start out boring and never get more compelling. Hancock also seems fascinated by target practice, subjecting us to multiple, minutes long scenes of characters shooting at bottles or signs. This does not create drama. It doesn’t matter whether the men are good shots or not. Most of us have probably seen the picture of Bonnie and Clyde’s car after they were gunned down. Good aim played no part in it. The outlaws practically drove into a firing range. It was inevitable the bullets would find their intended targets.
They only interesting aspect of the first half of the film is the brief appearance of Kathy Bates as Miriam “Ma’” Ferguson, the first female governor of Texas , who was instrumental in re-activating rangers such as Hamer and Gault to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde. The second half has a few more sparks, most notably a scene where Hamer has a conversation with Clyde’s father.
Fusco fumbles his thesis badly throughout. In order to understand how Hamer came to be so badly represented in the 1967 film, Fusco’s main job needs to be examining the mythology of Bonnie and Clyde, and the degree to which they were icons while they were still alive. That’s what Hamer and Gault were ultimately up against, but Fusco loses focus on this every time he makes this a conventional manhunt film. Bonnie and Clyde weren’t just newspaper headlines. They started fashion trends, inspired songs and were folk heroes throughout the country. The film only occasionally confronts this issue. We spend several minutes in a restaurant with Hamer and Gault, listening to them recount more tales from the old days, before one of them notices a woman wearing a Bonnie Parker outfit, the tenth one he’s seen today. As soon as he points that out, it’s dropped. Every time the film begins to poke at the celebrity status the couple attained, it turns its attention back to people loading guns or heading back out on the trail. It’s a film that knows where its central conflict lies, but then spends most of its running time as a weary old cowboy film. It’s incredibly frustrating.
The one powerful moment comes after Bonnie & Clyde are killed. Their death is depicted nearly identical to the climax of the 1967 film. The only difference is that they are both in the car when they are ambushed, and they clasp hands before they die instead of exchanging panicked looks. The Highwaymen continues after the ambush. It shows the shot up car being towed through Arcadia, Lousiana with the bodies still inside. The lawmen look on as citizens rush the car. Some people wail in horror at the sight of the dead couple. A smaller number of people try to collect souvenirs by pulling locks of hair off of Bonnie or attempting to cut off Clyde’s fingers. It’s a remarkable sequence and a completely accurate one. The lawmen aren’t celebrating. They did their job. It was a grim one, and they know most of the people outside will forever see them as villains. I wish the rest of the film had done more to earn this moment.
Fusco and Hancock ultimately point out that more than 50 years ago, a couple filmmakers got it wrong. That on its own just isn’t enough to make this story compelling. Despite the inaccuracies in Robert Benton’s script, I’d much rather spend two hours with Faye, Warren and yes, even Denver Pyle.