What do you call a film that takes place too recently to be considered a Western but not recently enough to be a neo-Western? A late-period Western? A retro-neo-Western? A mid-Western?
Whichever term you prefer, feel free to attach it to the Netflix movie The Highwaymen, currently enjoying a small theatrical run and, as of Friday, streaming on the service. A tale of hard men chasing outlaws across dusty byways, it is a sturdy saga that fulfills all the obligations of the classic Western, just without the horses and six-shooters.
Following in the footsteps of such narrative inversions as John Gardner’s Grendel and Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, the film tells a familiar story from an unfamiliar vantage. Specifically, it describes the final 1934 crime spree of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow—vividly memorialized, of course, by Arthur Penn in his 1967 tour de force, Bonnie and Clyde—but from the perspective of the lawmen who hunted the couple across the South and Midwest and ultimately gunned them down in Louisiana.
Said lawmen are the legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and his partner, Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson). Both had left the Rangers due to the reelection of the vehemently anti-Ranger Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) as Texas governor. But following Parker and Barrow’s lethal raid on the Eastham prison farm, Hamer was persuaded to accept a special commission. Technically, he was assigned to the Texas Highway Patrol; in actuality, he was entrusted with bringing the fugitives to justice—ideally, a justice they would enjoy in the hereafter. In this undertaking (so to speak), he enlisted the help of Gault.
What follows is largely a tale of near misses. Parker and Barrow are consistently a step ahead of Hamer and Gault as the criminals crisscross state lines—Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Louisiana—leaving a stream of bodies in their wake. Throughout most of the film, the outlaws themselves are seen only in glimpses, or from a distance: the perfect whale for Hamer’s Ahab.
It’s hardly an insult to acknowledge that The Highwaymen is no classic on the level of Bonnie and Clyde. But it is, in its way, the perfect corrective to Penn’s film. The latter, so attuned to the countercultural mood of the late 1960s, dripped with style and sex appeal in presenting its protagonists as charismatic antiheroes. By contrast, The Highwaymen is, in true Western fashion, staid and direct, a story of law and order in which—if it comes down to it—order is the more important of the two outcomes. Forget the flash and glamour of youth. This is essentially the story of a grumpy old man, Hamer, who returns from vacation to discover, with horror, what the kids have been up to while he’s been away. Given that what they’ve been up to is mass murder, this interpretation seems considerably more reasonable than the glamorization offered by Penn.
The solid script, by John Fusco (who also wrote the forever-underrated neo-Western Thunderheart), had kicked around Hollywood long enough that Paul Newman and Robert Redford were once considered for the leads. It’s a bit of a surprise that the project lingered as long as it did, given a premise so intriguing. The fact that the director, John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks), does not notably elevate the material is almost beside the point: He performs the more important duty of Not Screwing It Up. In contrast to so many contemporary films, The Highwaymen is not larded with unnecessary backstories and love interests and hidden motivations. It simply is what it is—which, in Hollywood terms, might be simultaneously the most subversive and the most reactionary thing about it.
Harrelson is good as Gault, but his role is very much to set a contrast with Costner’s Hamer. Gault is the joker, the drinker, the one who sees both sides, the one who signed on largely because he had nothing else to do. The most interesting element of Harrelson’s performance might be the way it brings him full circle from 1994’s Natural Born Killers, a film in which he played one half of a murderous, road-tripping couple explicitly inspired by Bonnie and Clyde.
Costner’s portrayal of Hamer—stoic, unforgiving, sure of his own righteousness—however, gives a hint that we might have more to look forward to in the actor’s post-stardom career than expected. From his peak in The Untouchables and Field of Dreams and JFK, Costner was always a bit of a square, a fuddy-duddy, a dad. (It’s worth noting that one of his very best roles was when he was cast against type as a crook in A Perfect World, which was written by Hancock.) Now that he’s 64, Costner has to some degree aged into his long-standing onscreen persona. What was once painfully cloying is now merely crotchety—not ideal, perhaps, but trending in the right direction.
Indeed, if there’s a principal disappointment in The Highwaymen, it’s that rather than drilling down on Hamer (a fascinating figure), it opts for the relative security of the buddy movie. In actuality, Gault joined Hamer only toward the end of the Parker-Barrows pursuit, in time for the final, brutal shoot-out in Bienville Parish. Until then, Hamer had mostly followed his quarry alone. It’s not hard to see why Fusco and Hancock chose to bring Harrelson in as an interlocutor for their tightly wound avenger. Conveying a character’s inner life with little dialogue or other interaction is a tricky exercise. But when done well—say, by Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men—it can be mesmerizing. The filmmakers might have failed had they aimed higher, but the ceiling for the movie would have been raised considerably.
There is one way, however, in which The Highwaymen is a clear success. Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, in its eager celebration of violent anarchy against stultifying authority, invented a scene in which the protagonists capture and humiliate Hamer, played in that film by Denver Pyle. (In real life, it appears that Hamer never laid eyes on Parker and Barrow until he helped kill them in the Louisiana ambush.) In 1971, Hamer’s family successfully sued Warner Bros. for this fabrication, winning an undisclosed settlement but leaving Penn’s version of the tale essentially undisturbed. The Highwaymen will never penetrate public consciousness the way Bonnie and Clyde did, nor should it. But what actually took place between Hamer, Parker, and Barrows—or at least a rough approximation—is now available to anyone with access to Netflix. Consider it Frank Hamer’s final revenge.