The Highwaymen Review: A fresh perspective on a classic American tale
Showing a different side to the classic Bonnie and Clyde story, The Highwaymen is a solid crime-thriller that brings light to the men who took the iconic duo down and sports two excellent lead performances from Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson.
The film follows two Texas Rangers (Costner, Harrelson) that are forced to come out of retirement to hunt down the murderous Bonnie and Clyde to end their rampage across the country. However, things are not as easy as they used to be for the two Rangers as their age is making their investigations and travelling hard. However, utilizing their experience and old-school detective skills, these two Rangers travel around finding resources to get them closer to ending Bonnie and Clyde’s treacherous run once and for all.
The tale of Bonnie and Clyde is generally told in an anti-hero fashion with the two being represented as romanticized, tragic heroes that you oddly root for and become enamored with. The Highwaymen doesn’t really represent them like this and focuses more on them being criminals and their acts being, well, bad. Honestly, you never really see Bonnie and Clyde for most of the film and while there are some moments that showcase how the public saw them as heroes and their love for the two, it comes off as creepy or odd rather than relatable. This is due to how viewers will mostly learn about Bonnie and Clyde through clues and information found by the film’s two protagonists, who are set to stop them by any means necessary.
Costner and Harrelson have great chemistry on-screen and put in some great performances that highlight their characters’ stoic and knowledgeable mentalities. Costner’s Frank Hamer is much quieter and is fueled by his inner passion for stopping criminals and Harrelson’s Maney Gault is a little more personable and is the “social butterfly” of the two that let’s Harrelson stretch his more light-hearted acting muscles without straining them. I will say that their characters can feel a little under-whelming at times with how generic the film represents them and even the way the film describes the struggles they had faced in their work had me rolling my eyes. There’s a point where Gault tells a story about him and Frank’s past before they retired, and I could help but find myself chuckling as the story he tells is one that I’ve heard about a thousand times in other movies.
However, the film’s debate, while also seen in other movies, about whether there’s a line between vigilante and criminal is refreshing throughout the film. There’s constant debate throughout the film whether its okay to out-rightly kill Bonnie and Clyde on-sight or if they should be tried normally. There’s even some conversation on if there is even a distinct line between good guys and bad guys anymore as well as what humanity actually means. Personally, I really enjoy how the film decides to both answer the question with Frank’s ideology behind it as well as leaving it open for viewers to determine. For a film that’s very slow at times, having these kinds of conversations and ideas being thrown around made slower parts feel engaging and keep me on the edge of my seat without the need for action scenes.
There’re still some pretty violent and tough moments that would be expected with a Bonnie and Clyde tale, but director John Lee Hancock utilizes these moments and spaces them throughout the film to make each moment impactful. Often times, even when you can guess what’s going to happen, Hancock will use different camera angles, shots from far away, and solid suspense building to create a fresh air of mystery behind Bonnie and Clyde’s acts. By keeping them out of most of the spotlight, and most of the film, Hancock creates some ambiguity to them and allows viewers to see their violent acts through the eyes of Frank and Gault rather than up-close and personal.
All of this builds to a finale that, while I’ve seen before, leaves an impact through realistic brutality and a sequence that’s chill-inducing. Not only does this finale service as a gruesome end for the gritty and strong efforts put in by Frank and Gault but showcases the impact Bonnie and Clyde did on people. It also emphasizes how Frank and Gault’s actions impact them and how they conflict with how others are reacting to the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde.
The Highwaymen is not the same old Bonnie and Clyde retelling and boasts some strong performances from Costner and Harrelson as well as a fresh perspective on an iconic American tale. Even in it’s dawdling nature and generic character beats, the film still finds engaging moments through new kinds of storytelling and intriguing themes about humanity.