In an alternate version of the current cinematic landscape, one where a film’s best chance at finding an audience is strictly through a theatrical release, a film like The Highwaymen might just have done all right at the box office. Instead, the film eschewed that stodgy old approach and landed in living rooms and on devices worldwide via streaming giant turned film studio Netflix.
Directed by John Lee Hancock (best known for films like The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks and The Rookie), it’s just as non-threatening as its predecessors, even as it covers a dramatic moment in American history from an interesting new perspective. Starring Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner as two law enforcement agents tasked with bringing down the infamous Bonnie and Clyde crime duo, The Highwaymen is made for a movie night in; unlike some of the platform’s other offerings (Roma, for example), no one will make the argument that you must see this perfectly OK film on the big screen.
Written by John Fusco, the premise of The Highwaymen is actually quite interesting as it recounts events we all presume to know well from an angle none of us have likely considered. Based on actual people and historical record, Harrelson and Costner play Maney Gault and Frank Hamer respectively, two former Texas Rangers who, when the early FBI and all the government’s top officers can’t manage it, are tasked with tracking and taking down Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow directly. They track the criminals across state lines, always apparently a step or two behind them; there’s lots of time spent wandering empty safe houses where the duo had just been, the two detectives ruminating on what their next plans must be and how to find them.
And there’s plenty of time for the ruminating, as the film clocks in at a leisurely 2 hours and 12 minutes; in some cases, that’s a runtime that can be justified as a filmmaker takes us deeper into the story or character development. Here, it just feels like an indulgence when one isn’t constrained by theatrical screening norms; at least twice, I checked the film’s progress on the play bar on screen to see just how much there was left, and both times I was surprised at how much more there was to go. The fact that both Costner and Harrleson seem to be phoning in their performances doesn’t help; we’ve seen these two as detectives before, and in better films. Together, their detective duo doesn’t spark any kind of investigative excitement—how could it, when they’re up against a pair as charismatic and compelling as Bonnie and Clyde? As she does with every project she graces, Kathy Bates injects a bit of energy into the proceedings, but her role as Ma Ferguson, the governor of Texas who made it her mission to end Bonnie and Clyde’s crime spree, is so limited that it can’t quite lift the film as a whole.
One of the more interesting choices of the film is to never actually show either Bonnie or Clyde throughout the proceedings (until the gruesome ending, that is). The approach means that Gault and Hamer’s story gets all the focus, as it should. Any attempt to splice in what the criminals are up to while the detectives are in pursuit would’ve drained even more energy away from the protagonists, and they don’t have any to spare.
While there’s nothing exactly wrong with The Highwaymen, there just isn’t enough that’s impressive about it to make it a memorable addition to the Bonnie and Clyde opus, particularly in light of the 1967 classic. That film is also streaming on Netflix, and one is probably better served to just queue it up for your next movie night in rather than The Highwayman.
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