Our fascination in true crime stories is strange, yet profitable. Though we as viewers know the protagonists of these stories are in the wrong, it is hard for us not to become invested. We don’t necessarily root for these individuals, but we take interest in what makes their minds work and what possesses them to commit such crimes. This, among other reasons, could be why people have found the story of Bonnie and Clyde so enduring.
What we most likely do not find as interesting, however, is the story of the people who caught them. While the ambush that killed the notorious bank robbers/murderers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow is as legendary and interesting as their crime spree, the squad of policemen and Texas Rangers behind it are sadly not. Or at least they’re not based on how they’re presented in John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen.
Depicting the true story of the crime duo’s killers, The Highwaymen begins in 1934 with Bonnie (Emily Brobst) and Clyde (Edward Bossert) breaking a few of their partners out of the Eastham Prison Farm in Texas. After a two year crime spree, Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) believes it’s time to bring former Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) out of retirement to catch the infamous criminals. Joined by his former out-of-work partner, Benjamin Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), the two elderly highwaymen embark on a journey that not only brings the satisfaction of catching the fugitives, but provides a bit of closure on their long careers.
One would think a film that portrays two of America’s most iconic criminals would devote at least a quarter of the screen time toward them. Sadly, this isn’t the case. The Highwaymen focuses on just that, Hamer and Gault, the two titular men responsible for catching the criminals. Surprisingly, Bonnie and Clyde are barely seen at all and when they are, not much context is provided. If a viewer wasn’t already familiar with them, they would not have learned much else by the time The Highwaymen ended.
In fact, a film that should be a thriller, a tense game of cat and mouse, turns out to be more of a road/buddy movie. Hamer and Gault are aging Rangers and have to perform one last duty – and that’s about the extent of the main plot. This is not to say that the characters and the real people they are portraying aren’t interesting. But given the film’s context, the viewer might be expecting a film a bit more tense and dramatic.
Though The Highwaymen has no relation to Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde aside from the subject matter, it is a bit difficult not to be reminded of it. Penn’s account of the story focused primarily on the criminals and offered an anti-authoritative voice that reflected the attitude spread by the youth counterculture at the time. To the people who saw the film growing up , Bonnie and Clyde probably seemed as if it was made for them – not because they wanted to commit such crimes, but because they were at an age and time that began to question authority. The Highwaymen is made for that authority, and maybe even the people that grew up on Penn’s film who have since mellowed and matured.
Though The Highwaymen misses its mark story and dialogue-wise, its strengths come from its acting. The role of Frank Hamer was meant for Costner, as it is hard to imagine anyone else playing him so well. Harrelson is perfect as his partner, truly showcasing the strong chemistry between the two veterans. Bates, John Carroll Lynch (portraying Texas Department of Corrections Chief Lee Simmons), and Thomas Mann (portraying Deputy Ted Hinton, the youngest member of the ambush crew and an old friend of Bonnie’s) all help lead a particularly strong supporting cast. However, strong performances simply cannot save an uninteresting story.
In the end, The Highwaymen is a technically well-made film that just can’t seem to get on the right foot. Its targeted audience seems to be an older crowd more attuned to relating to the central protagonists. But ultimately, they too deserve a better movie.