In 1967, director Arthur Penn created the unforgettable Bonnie and Clyde. Featuring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in career-defining roles, it treated the young outlaws as folk heroes and their bloody slow-mo deaths in a hail of bullets transformed them into martyrs. It was emotive stuff and few people emerged from a screening dry-eyed.
John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen takes an altogether more sober look at their three year reign of terror and concentrates on the two elderly men who ultimately brought them to justice. Indeed, here, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are demoted to the periphery of the action, glimpsed only in longshot until the very end – an approach that somehow serves to accentuate their charisma.
Kevin Costner stars as former Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer, brought out of comfortable retirement in order to hunt down the seemingly unstoppable duo. He teams up with old comrade, Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), and the two ageing men embark on the long quest to find their elusive quarry. Their uncomfortable, odd couple relationship lies at the heart of this film, which is beautifully shot by John Schwartzman, the endless vistas of the American plains shimmering enticingly. This is, in many ways, an elegy for the old West, a world where new fangled automobiles struggle to deal with the kind of landscape where only horses previously ran.
Writer John Fusco is interested in the popularity of Bonnie and Clyde, the way they generated a huge fan following in a time of absolute poverty. They were widely seen as Robin Hood figures, outlaws who only ever stole from the rich. The scenes of mass hysteria when the couple’s bullet-riddled corpses are brought before the public are sobering indeed.
It’s interesting to read that the relatives of the real Frank Hamer successfully sued Warner Brothers for defamation of character over his depiction in the Arthur Penn classic. Costner sets the record straight here, playing him as a pragmatist, a man who takes no pleasure in killing them, but sees their deaths as a necessity – mad dogs to be put down in the public’s interest, even if the public don’t realise what’s good for them.
While The Highwaymen doesn’t have a lot to offer in the way of high drama, it’s nevertheless an interesting and very different take on a story you may already think you know well. Interested parties will find it on Netflix.