Movie review: Netflix's The Highwaymen

March 23, 2020

‘BONNIE & Clyde’ is an iconic 1967 film about real life public enemies Bonnie Parker and Clyde Farrow with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in the title roles who were treated as folk heroes.

They’re part of what is known as the Public Enemy era of crime during the Depression, peopled by such notorious legendary criminals as Al Capone aka Scarface, Ma Barker, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly whose crimes were all made into films also. 

Their nemesis then were the FBI Agents known as G-men, the most famous of whom was Elliot Ness and his Untouchables, whose lives were also made into films and TV shows.

“Bonnie and Clyde” was a big hit and broke many taboos in its portrayal of sex and violence on screen. Its climactic ending is considered as one of the bloodiest death scenes in film history. Since the film is told from their point of view, it naturally romanticized them. 

They were portrayed as some sort of Robin Hood when the truth is they are cold-blooded killers who ruthlessly murdered several cops and innocent people while they were on rampage during their crime spree. During the climactic ambush scene, there’s even a wordless scene between the murderous love birds exchanging loving looks before bullets were sprayed on them. 

Now, after 60 years, the story of how they were killed is retold, but this time from the point of view of the law men assigned to track them down. One of them, Frank Hamer, was also in the first movie. 

But he was portrayed as inept and was even shown being captured and humiliated by the couple before being set free. There is no such scene here. Hamer is, in fact, the most celebrated Texas Ranger of all time.

The faces of the actors who played Bonnie and Clyde are not at all shown in this new movie, not until the final scene when they were about to meet their Maker. But it opens with them helping their friends escape from a prison work gang in Texas in a daring jailbreak.  

The governor of Texas then, a woman known as Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates), is persuaded to call on the help of retired Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner), who then recruits his friend, Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson). 

Since the Texas Rangers have been officially disbanded, they’re considered on a special highway assignment. Hence, the title, “The Highwaymen”, as directed by John Lee Hancock (“Blind Side”, for which Sandra Bullock won an Oscar.)

They are initially made fun of by the younger FBI men who were also assigned to the case, but it’s Hamer’s dedication and astute deduction that really doomed the crime breaking couple. 

This movie is not as entertaining as the over-the-top version of Arthur Penn that seems to be siding with the lovers, but it looks more realistic in vilifying them and seems to hew closer to the historical facts about what happened. 

For instance, in the first movie, the wanted killers were apprehended with the help of their co-gang member known as CW Moss (a fictitious character played by Michael J. Pollard). Here, the real name of the character is used, Henry Methvin, and it’s his father who connives with Hamer and Gault to bring down the couple. 

When the bodies of the lovers were wheeled into town in Louisiana in their bullet-riddled car, the way the town’s people mobbed and pounced on their cadavers just to get some souvenirs was sickening. 

But it does say something really bad about human nature. And this is where it differs from the previous film. It’s just too, too serious in its treatment.

Kevin Costner gives a relaxed but very confident performance as Hamer, the man of few words and this movie is a tribute to him. This is not surprising as he has also played Elliot Ness before in the 1987 hit movie, “The Untouchables” by Brian de Palma. 

He works well with Woody Harrelson and we just wish their relationship was explored a bit more and they were given some moments of levity to help lighten up the movie. Even Woody's best moment, where he recounts their deadly encounter with a group of bandits some years ago, was so deadly serious.

But the film’s period production design looks so authentic, from the costumes to the ammunitions employed to the various vintage cars used in so many different scenes. The movie’s epilogue shows actual pictures of Hamer, Gault, Bonnie and Clyde and says that the Texas Rangers were officially reconstituted in 1935.