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“The Highwaymen” review

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cowboy yee haw

There’s one moment in “The Highwaymen” where a farmer notices some policemen checking on a stopped car in the distance. We watch from his point of view as a man in a dapper suit and stylish hat steps out of the car and casually unloads three shots on the officers. Then a woman in a red dress walks out beside him, dragging her foot and toting a big shotgun. She kicks a fallen officer over on his back, pumps another shot in him and laughs. Introducing Bonnie and Clyde, the notorious criminal duo.
This scene is the essence of the movie itself, a film about following criminals from a distance. Bonnie and Clyde have been on the run for two years in their rabid crime spree. Their popularity is higher than ever, revered as heroes of the Great Depression for their targets are mostly bankers. They’re pure chaos, immune to the FBI’s dated efforts to track them down. However, they cross a new line in the eyes of the law when they sneak into a prison to free some allies. That’s when Texas Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) decides to fight chaos with more chaos. She hires former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) to track down and kill Bonnie and Clyde.
Costner gives a great performance as the seasoned lawman. His time as a bounty hunter has passed and the world doesn’t seem to want him any more. Between Bonnie and Clyde’s heroic reputation and the FBI’s dismissal of his old ways, he’s seen as almost completely irrelevant. He gives a moving performance, showing a range of both frustration and determination. Once he makes up his mind, he just wants to get the job done and wash his hands of the whole thing. He’s not happy about his mission, but knows he has to do it anyway.
The film subverts plenty of notions we have going into a bounty hunter movie. The first of which is its unusually dreary tone. Its color pallet is more dark blue instead of the usual bright colors of a Texas western. The pace is slow, and the action is spoken of more than shown. John Schwartzman’s cinematography is both haunting and beautiful, with brutal killings juxtaposed by flat Texas farmland. When we see Bonnie and Clyde, it’s usually brief and from a distance, pulling focus from them and placing it onto the lives they affect.
The film raises questions about the virtues of western justice and the shifting of generations. Yet this isn’t new ground. The themes are already thoroughly explored by other modern films such as “No Country for Old Men” and “Hell or High Water.” “The Highwaymen” has reportedly been in production since 2005, which isn’t surprising. It would likely be more relevant if it were released then instead of now.
Another problem is Hamer’s partner Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), who serves mostly as comic relief. He doesn’t have much of a purpose except for being Hamer’s foil and pushing the plot along. He has plenty of scenes by himself that could have grown his character, but instead they’re reserved for comic relief and plot development. A prime example would be his bathroom fight scene, where he fights some of his opposers while pissing. It doesn’t add anything to the plot nor his character and isn’t mentioned again.
Despite its flaws, John Lee Hancock’s “The Highwaymen” is a respectful biopic about the ugly side of a romanticized part of history. Costner gives a great performance as a misunderstood man in a moral dilemma, haunted by both his targets and peers. However, it just doesn’t add much to the pantheon of “the days of the lone ranger are gone” movies. If you’re scrolling through Netflix for an interesting biopic about someone you likely haven’t heard of, “The Highwaymen” is a good choice.
Final verdict: ★★★☆☆

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