In one of the first scenes in The Highwaymen, Bonnie Parker limps up to a wounded cop who lays dying and plugs him in the head at point blank range for good measure. The young highway patrolman was engaged to be married at the time, his fiancee wore her wedding dress to his funeral, and the public outcry over the story was a major factor in turning public opinion against Bonnie and Clyde in 1934.
Trouble is, it didn’t actually happen. At least not according to Jeff Guinn’s biography of the couple, which says it was Barrow gangmember Henry Methwin who delivered the extra shots, after starting the shootout in the first place, when the police approached the gang and Methwin misunderstood Barrow’s directive “I guess we have to take them now” to mean kill them instead of kidnap them (Barrow had previously always taken cops hostage when possible rather than killed them).
You could certainly make the case that Clyde Barrow was a cop killer (he undoubtedly killed cops) and that Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, played by Kevin Costner in The Highwaymen, deserved better than his bungling depiction in 1967’s Best Picture nominated Bonnie And Clyde. This was, after all, a man whose somewhat controversial legacy at least included fighting the KKK and preventing a lynching or two before he got involved in the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. At the very least it seems he was pretty good at his job.
Point being, there’s enough in the record to support a movie about Bonnie and Clyde where Hamer is the relatable one. So why does The Highwaymen need to cheat?
The Highwaymen, directed by John Lee Hancock and written by John Fusco, starring Costner as Hamer and Woody Harrelson as BM “Manny” Gault (yes, his name apparently really was “BM”) certainly wants to be the dads rule, punks drool take on the manhunt for Bonnie and Clyde, where all the lib justifications for their criminality — they were born into poverty, the cops were always picking on them, banks were predatory, it was the depression, there were no jobs, etc. etc. — are waved away with “but they broke the law!”
Never mind that the real Gault and Hamer were 38 and 50 at the time, at one point Harrelson’s character mutters to Costner’s,”I remember when you had to actually do something to be famous.”
These dang kids today with their bank robbin’ and their robot butlers and their sex tapes, doesn’t anyone build anything anymore? The Highwaymen seems to want to be reactionary but comes off merely crotchety.
The film opens with some brutal Bonnie and Clyde murders, followed by a board meeting scene where the newly elected Texas governor “Ma” Ferguson (played memorably by Kathy Bates) wants results, dammit, these cop-killing celeb bandits are making a dang fool out of her. A John Carroll Lynch character (apparently playing Lee Simmons, a Texas prison director at the time) suggests bringing back the Texas Rangers, which initially gets him laughed out of the room. It’s a classic of the “you’re crazy, Simmons, it’ll never work,” variety, with shades of “their methods are too unorthodox!” as seen in every cop movie from Tango and Cash to Beverly Hills Cop. But as John Spartan from Demolition Man would say, “it takes a maniac to catch a maniac.”
So Simmons sets out to recruit the famous lawman Hamer, proverbially “too old for this shit” and ensconced at his wife’s dull garden party for jauntily haberdashered society women. Hamer also keeps a domesticated pig for a watchdog, which is a nice touch.
Costner feels perfectly cast as a flinty retired lawman, still intimidating through sheer determination despite his increasing paunch. He has the power alleys of an enlightened patriarchy, a hairline that bespeaks respect for traditional institutions. Yet he also seems to be doing an affected gravelly thing with this voice that turns the whole thing silly, like the Dark Knight meets Sling Blade. Like the movie as a whole, Costner’s portrayal of Hamer takes something matter-of-factly masculine and exaggerates it to the point of parody. It’s “masculinity” for the slow and nearsighted, and that’s probably its target audience, a movie for embittered dads, railing at a lack of morals from their butt-grooved recliners.
Hamer recruits Gault, played by Woody Harrelson, who always excels at playing the fumbling alcoholic cop covered in two day stubble. Every time he talks, Harrelson’s non-affected voice is a refreshing vacation from Costner’s grating growl. These guys led fascinating lives, their fugitive tracking careers spanning the horse and automobile eras. This story would’ve been an excellent vehicle to explore the end of the American frontier as embodied by Bonnie and Clyde, the last hurrah of the posse, as embodied by Gault and Hamer, before it gave way to fingerprinting and wiretapping and J. Edgar Hoover. The Highwaymen touches on this, but mostly only in a ham-fisted way, subsumed in the larger, dumber “old guys teach the whippersnappers a lesson” trope.
It’s always about too dumb by half. Woody Harrelson’s character proudly tells barmen “I’m a cop” apropos of nothing, and Kevin Costner’s pummels a pro-Bonnie and Clyde gas station attendant until he reveals their location (a casual endorsement of torture in a movie that’s already endorsing extra-judicial murder). Meanwhile, a poor sharecropper who complains about the banks is depicted as a loony conspiracy theorist.
But that’s about as far as The Highwaymen will go. It wants to go full reactionary but keeps trying to hedge, with Gault occasionally chiding Hamer for beating up civilians, or a scene where Clyde Barrow’s father hilariously seems to ask Hamer to murder his son. (Sir, it would be an honor to have my son murdered by a law man as broad shouldered as you, sir.)
Ultimately The Highwaymen‘s lack of self-knowledge is almost worse than its creeping authoritarianism, a mealy-mouthed, half endorsement of the police state couched in a country song about how old dudes rule. It cuts against the masculine posturing when you can’t just say what you mean.