Arthur Penn’s boundary-busting 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde” ends with an abrupt bang — well, dozens of them, really — as the titular outlaws are graphically showered with machine gun fire, in a scene so gruesome and frantically shot that it hardly seems a product of its own time. Over half a century later, “The Highwaymen,” which was made available to stream on Netflix on Friday, March 29, tells the story leading up to that fateful showdown from the other side of the law.
Following a string of violent drive-bys committed by the seemingly uncatchable Barrow Gang in 1934, the Texas government decided to take action by bringing two Texas Rangers — a law enforcement division which had been decommissioned the previous year — out of retirement to track the infamous vagabonds across the West. The two Rangers approached for the job, Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), have spent the last year in two very different kinds of retirement: While Hamer enjoys the beauty and solitude of his riverside estate with his wife and pet pig, Gault spends his days bored, living with his daughter, son-in-law and grandson in a run-down shack, the Depression seeming to have treated his family rather poorly. After Hamer loads up on guns and ammunition — in a scene bizarrely reminiscent of a similar moment in “The Terminator” — he and Gault take to the road in a game of cat-and-mouse that eventually crosses state borders.
Though director John Lee Hancock is best known for his dramatizations of real-world events, including “The Blind Side,” “The Founder” and the criminally underrated “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Highwaymen” is his first foray into truly violent, unsettling material — it’s the first film of his nearly 30-year career to earn an R rating. A story centered around a group of criminals who left a miles-long trail of blood across the American West should be, in and of itself, quite exciting when told through the eyes of the men responsible for their undoing. Unfortunately, the film misses its opportunity to punctuate its police procedural elements with compelling character work; its two leads, especially Gault, are made into shallow caricatures meant to amuse or divert the audience in between bouts of blandly directed crime investigation.
By the end of the first act, it can be assumed that Costner’s and Harrelson’s roles were written specifically for them: Hamer is a no-nonsense grouch who cracks maybe two smiles during the runtime; Gault, a scruffy wisecrack whose heart of gold will hardly keep him from butting heads with whoever might get in his way. Screenwriter John Fusco sketches the two characters with lazy scribbles, explicitly telling us almost anything interesting about them through the words of other people, one of the most sluggish writing techniques there is. Every 20 minutes or so, the lead actors are thrown into forcibly comical situations that implore them to play to type, so much so that all we end up seeing on screen are the Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner we’ve come to know over the decades, rather than the two heroes into whom they should be breathing life.
Despite its deeply flawed narrative and characterization, “The Highwaymen” is not by any means a total failure of the craft. The two leads perform just about the best that they can with the material they’re given; Harrelson, in particular, further confirms his status as Hollywood’s chief charmer. And the film, lensed by Oscar-nominated cinematographer John Schwartzman, is often quite gorgeous to look at, making the most of an often dry, colorless landscape with masterful composition and lighting. However, the beauty on screen is often distracted from by maddening, rapid-fire editing. Even scenes dominated by dialogue are littered with unnecessary cuts, suggesting the filmmakers were desperate to force a sense of energy into an otherwise by-the-numbers narrative.
“The Highwaymen” is, in many ways, a film that settles with being average. Though a nicely shot movie, it puts little effort into building engaging characters or conveying its historical source material in a way that will fascinate the audience. It’s hard to shake the notion that the film is meant to simply play in the background as you do homework or fold laundry, snagging your attention every now and again to give you a fleeting giggle or eyebrow-raise, ironically embodying the worst characteristics of the streaming revolution.
I give “The Highwaymen” two and a half out of five stars. For a more in-depth discussion of the film, listen to the latest episode of my podcast, Reel Underdogs.