The Highwaymen movie review: Kevin Costner-Woody Harrelson starrer is hobbled by its half-heartedness

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Apr 04, 2019 17:13:50 IST


John Lee Hancock’s new film The Highwaymen is a dangerous project. One must give credit to the director for having taking it up, despite knowing its attempt to straighten the record would go against a well-established cultural notion — that of the Robin Hood-esque fame notorious outlaws Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow (popularly known as Bonnie and Clyde) had attained in Depression-era America.

Hancock is not new to biographies and true stories (The Founder, about McDonald’s creator Ray Kroc; Saving Mr Banks, based on producer Walt Disney and author PL Travers; The Blind Side — NFL star Michael Oher; and The Rookie, about professional baseball player Jim Morris). He also has the dubious reputation of twisting historical facts to create suitable cinematic drama. In The Highwaymen, Hancock depicts Bonnie and Clyde as vicious murdering psychopaths, and the two Texas rangers who were instrumental in gunning them down in 1934 as heroes of the American justice system. But somehow, it just doesn’t seem to work.

The film depicts the pursuit of Bonnie and Clyde by two hardened Texas rangers over a period of five months. It begins with the notorious incident on 16 January 1934, when Bonnie and Clyde help a number of inmates — including gang member Henry Methvin — break out of Eastham Prison Farm, a state penitentiary located in Houston county, Texas. Following the incident, Texas governor Ma Ferguson is faced with unprecedented media pressure to find a solution to the lawlessness in her state. Ferguson is convinced by the prisons' chief Lee Simmons that the only way the two criminals can be apprehended is to reinstate Texas Ranger Frank Hamer and set him on their trail. Hamer is brought out of retirement, and he, in turn, seeks out his former deputy Maney Gault from a jobless life of misery for one final assignment. The two men hit the road, armed and loaded, sleeping in their cars, eating at diners, following the trail of the infamous criminals who are shown to ruthlessly murder police officers, shooting them in the face and leaving them to die in the dirt of the road.

The Highwaymen movie review: Kevin Costner-Woody Harrelson starrer is hobbled by its half-heartedness

Still from The Highwaymen. Image via Netflix

If Arthur Penn’s 1967 film starring Faye Dunaway as Bonnie and Warren Beatty as Clyde was guilty of glamourising the misadventures of the duo by painting a rob-the-rich-to-feed-the-poor image of them, Hancock’s film comes across as 130 minutes of propaganda, lauding the police for what they did. It is not the objective of this review to judge who was right and who was wrong. There are enough historical facts to prove that, and I am sure both filmmakers had their own ethical and artistic reasons to tell the story that they wanted to. But even as a pure form of art, as a cinematic work, Hancock’s film fails to impress. For one, it tries too hard to earn the sympathy of its audience, most of whom would have subscribed to the Penn version of the story. Every once in a while, Hamer and Gault stumble upon common citizens who speak highly of the robbers and murderers that the two rangers are trying to catch, and every single time, they try to tug at our heartstrings by reminding us that Bonnie and Clyde killed many ‘peace men’ in uniform who were simply doing their duty. It’s an honest attempt, and a brave one at that. Perhaps it would have worked, had it not been so outrageously overdone. I am going to blame John Fusco’s script for this fiasco, but honestly, this wasn’t the only one in the film.

In another misstep, the film tries to de-glam the criminals by choosing never to show their faces (up until the final scene, at least), hoping that this would help sever the ties of pop culture loyalty between the duo and the viewers. Once again, it does not work. Instead, it comes across as another propagandist attempt at denying Bonnie and Clyde their fair share of cinematic presence. It must be stated here that Penn’s film showed and notoriously humiliated Frank Hamer’s character, and maybe this was Hancock’s way of taking a measured and dignified approach of getting back at those twisted facts. Whose version was right? Penn’s? Hancock’s? That’s not for me to judge. Both were just movies, after all.

John Schwartzman’s cinematography is praiseworthy in The Highwaymen, and the film manages to show the impact of the economic crisis on regular people. Somewhere implicit in these images of poverty is also a causal explanation of how Bonnie and Clyde became the criminals they did. In a scene that is poorly written and even more poorly executed, Clyde’s father Henry Barrow tells the man who's vowed to hunt down his son how it all began in his childhood, Clyde stole a chicken out of sheer hunger, and that he wasn’t born with a dark soul, triggering Hamer to tell his own story — one that unfortunately comes across as a sob-story, more than anything else. While Hamer’s intention is to preach the taking of the Lord’s path at the crossroads of life, the cinematic moment simply doesn’t call for it and makes for very bad screenplay.

All said and done, I must praise the performances of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as Frank Hamer and Maney Gault. The two men look dapper in their Stetsons and suits and they drive a mean machine, firing automatic weapons that negate the rust long years of retirement have wrought on their shooting skills. While Costner is the more level-headed and principled of the two, Harrelson brings in some much-needed humour in this grim tale, although thanks to the poor script, his one-liners come across just as bad as his shooting. But as far as the acting is concerned, both men — veterans as they are — do an honest and sincere job.

But as they say, for a movie to work, a number of things have to come together and click into place, making a wholesome singularity. Hancock’s film does not have the luxury to claim that about itself. Because it is doomed right at the outset, when armed with a budget of 49 million dollars, the makers set out to disprove a popular belief with a less-than-ordinary script, a few made-up facts and half a heart. All that the film ends up doing is proving that it will take a lot more to kill the idea of Bonnie and Clyde.

Rating: ★★

The Highwaymen is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here:

Updated Date: Apr 04, 2019 17:13:50 IST

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