Screening during the SXSW festival amidst some of the best, most exciting and inspiring movies of the year, like Us, Booksmart, and the AOC doc, Knock Down the House, Kevin Costner’s upcoming Netflix release The Highwaymen (which also opens in a few theaters this weekend) unfortunately suffers by comparison. Fittingly called the “perfect Dad movie” by nearly everyone I talked to about it, The Highwaymen is a slightly more than serviceable revisionist take on Bonnie and Clyde centered on the two Texas Rangers, Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), who helped to bring them down.
Bonnie and Clyde, in fact, barely feature in The Highwaymen, directed by John Lee Hancock (The Alamo, The Blind Side), presumably so as not to further give life to the celebrity that enraptured them in 1934. This movie is about the two Capital L “Lawmen,” who doggedly pursue them using new technology like wiretaps, plus some good old-fashioned hunches and get-off-my-lawn grumbles that might find considerable appeal among Eastwood fans. Reluctantly brought out of retirement by Texas Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) — who had disbanded the Texas Rangers — Hamer commits to the job over the soft objections of his wife (Kim Dickens, who has all of two scenes). He recruits his old partner, Gault, and the two set about on their road trip.
There is a lot of driving in The Highwaymen, and much of the film is practically seen through the front windshield of an old Ford. There’s a lot of “too old for this sh*t” subtext to what’s going on in The Highwaymen, too, but it’s never really played for laughs. Costner is dour and focused, while Harrelson’s character makes the occasional wry remark, but the interplay and chemistry — if you can call it that — is nevertheless engaging. It’s two veteran actors who know their way around a movie set. But the story moves like molasses from one dusty old town to another, as Bonnie and Clyde remain one step ahead of them the whole time, until they’re not anymore.
John Lee Hancock, working from John Fusco’s script, takes pains to emphasize the violence inflicted on other lawmen by Bonnie and Clyde (without showing their faces until they themselves are gunned down), but he doesn’t romanticize the work of the Rangers, either. While Hamer accepts death as part of the job, Gault is weighed down by all the lives they have taken, some justified while others more of the collateral damage variety. There’s the occasional shoot-out, but The Highwaymen is not an action movie — it’s rooted more in ideas about duty and honor, and gettin’ your man, protecting your own, and relying on instinct instead of newfangled technology like walkie talkies. In other words, it is a perfect movie for your dad, but a modest enough diversion for yourself, particularly if you’re enamored with countryside vistas, endless roads, and “good guys” doing whatever it takes to restore law and order.