Just by chance, without knowing Netflix’s The Highwaymen was coming, I gave director Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) another look a few months ago. No special reason, other than it’s one of those 250 or so movies you can never watch enough times and I had just finished Jeff Guinn’s superb Bonnie and Clyde biography Go Down Together.
Warren Beatty plays Clyde, Faye Dunaway is Bonnie, Gene Hackman is Clyde’s brother Buck, and along the way we are graced with Michael J. Pollard, Denver Pyle, Gene Wilder (in his screen debut), the great Dub Taylor, and Estelle Parsons, who won an Oscar as Buck’s neurotic, screechy wife Blanche.
Lightning in a bottle and fifty years later you can still see why Bonnie and Clyde was a game changer (along with Easy Rider); the very epoch between the Studio Era and the Auteur Era; the Jazz Singer and Pulp Fiction rolled into one.
The Auteur Era (1967-1979) was when Hollywood went to war with the establishment (man, I miss that) and in doing so deconstructed everything that came before. Bonnie and Clyde was itself a brilliant and welcome deconstruction of all those movies and TV shows lionizing conformity — from Jack Webb’s Dragnet to Jimmy Stewart’s The F.B.I. Story.
According to Penn’s classic, Bonnie and Clyde were young, insanely attractive, impulsive, wild, free, fighting those big banks that foreclosed on everyone’s home, and reluctant to kill.
That’s its genius, how it romanticizes a couple of psychopaths without shying away from the bloodletting.
You see, Bonnie and Clyde isn’t about Bonnie and Clyde. What it is actually about is the terrible price the Individual fighting for his individualism pays for refusing to conform in America; it’s about how the game is rigged into a no-win situation where you are either worn down into towing the line or driven to the kind of behavior that excuses the laws into taking you down.
Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde don’t want to kill anyone. They just want to be free and young and stick it to The Man, most especially the hideous establishment responsible for the Great Depression.
That’s why the movie works, why it plays as well today as it did 50 years, why it’s eternal.
And there’s a wonderful scene where the Barrow gang capture bumbling lawman Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle). Rather than kill him, though, they humiliate the stoic totem of All That Is Decent And Righteous About America. Hamer later gets his revenge leading the bullet-ridden ambush that brings the charismatic couple down.
Bonnie and Clyde humiliated the establishment and the establishment responded with overkill motivated by petty revenge.
Brilliant, brilliant moviemaking.
But also fake news.
The famous (and famously competent) Texas Ranger Frank Hamer was never captured by Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, until the ambush that ended their two-plus year killing spree, he had never laid eyes on them. What’s more, Hamer’s family sued the studio (he died in 1955) for defamation and won an out-of-court settlement (which kind of proves the point of the movie).
And so it was with great trepidation that I gave director John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen a look.
To begin with, and I know this is heresy, I’m uptohere with pop culture’s First Responder Worship. I’ve shut it off; can’t watch anymore. Between 9/11 and Hollywood’s fealty to Barack Obama’s terrifying view of government as noble and necessary… One more TV show prostrating itself before government authority — district attorneys, policemen, firemen, military — seriously, enough already.
So as you can imagine, the last thing I wanted to see is the godforsaken establishment get its petty revenge on Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde by offering up its own deconstruction, by blowing it full of holes — even with the truth. But I’m a sucker for Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson and fedoras, so what the hell…
The Highwaymen tells the (mostly) true story of Frank Hamer (Costner) and his partner Maney Gault (Harrelson), two aging, former Texas Rangers hired — out of sheer desperation — by Texas Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) to hunt down and kill Bonnie and Clyde.
The year is 1934 and despite hundreds of F.B.I men on the case, the duo has eluded capture for more than two years, which has only emboldened them. Six law enforcement officers are already dead.
Compared to those young, strapping Hoover boys and their new-fangled gadgets (forensics, wireless radios), Hamer and Gault are walking anachronisms. After Governor “Ma” Ferguson ended the Texas Ranger program, both were put out to pasture. Hamer becomes a house husband, Gault crawled inside a bottle to deal with his conscience. The rekindling of this storied partnership is an uneasy one. Hamer sees the world in black and white. Gault acts on Hamer’s vision but can’t live with it.
Make no mistake, in real life, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were cold-blooded murderers to the core. Their willingness to almost constantly keep moving, a lack of cooperation between state agencies, Clyde’s supernatural driving skills, the help that came with unearned folk hero status (they robbed a whole lot more small businesses than banks), and outright ruthlessness makes for an extraordinary true story … that Highwaymen is not interested in telling.
Bonnie and Clyde are hardly ever seen, a conscious choice to keep us focused on their crimes.
Without Harrelson and Costner (and William Sadler in a small role as Clyde’s tortured father), The Highwaymen would be, well, not very good. It’s 20 to 30 minutes too long, directed without any flourish or imagination, and oftentimes crippled with leaden dialogue and contrived moments of Let’s Stop Here and Talk About Our Backstory. But this is why God invented movie stars…
To his credit, screenwriter John Fusco touches on big themes about modern celebrity, the root of human evil, and the impossible choices that put such a heavy price on duty.
Best of all, and much to my relief, The Highwaymen is also anti-establishment. Although she was the one who hired them, the governor ends up working against Hamer and Gault fearing their success will reflect poorly on her decision to end the Texas Rangers. This means that between “Ma” and the smug F.B.I., Hamer and Gault are the outsiders fighting their own government as well as a couple of wily outlaws who can outrun, outthink, and out-shoot anyone.
This was a pleasant surprise, especially in this, the fascist era of the Production Code of Political Correctness, where old, white men are villains, government is good, and Woke firsts (like “Ma” being the first female governor of Texas) are sacred.
So in its own way The Highwaymen is as iconoclastic as Bonnie and Clyde — it’s also kind of forgettable … and nowhere near as good.