By Alan Hurst
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow – the real outlaws, not the idealized characters played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) – drove into a planned ambush in Bienville Parish in Louisiana in 1934. They were gunned down by two Texas Rangers (Frank Hamer and Maney Gault) and several policemen after two years of robbing and killing across the American mid-west and south.
It was a fitting end for the duo and the exact moment the pair went from being folk heroes, who were viewed as modern-day Robin Hoods, to folk legends, a position further cemented in our minds with the 1967 film.
That film, depending on the day, is at or near the top of what I consider to be among the best films of all-time and, for those familiar with it, its shadow looms large over this Netflix original production of The Highwaymen. Director Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde was as much about these young gangsters as it was about America’s burgeoning cultural revolution and that’s why it struck a chord. There was uneasiness with what was happening with the counter culture movement in the late sixties, just as there was with Bonnie and Clyde’s shocking mix of violence with the every day. We shouldn’t care about them, but we do. We watched Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker murder, rob and pillage their way across the United States. But we also got to know them and root for them to get it together, give it up and lead a normal life. By the end of the film they seem to genuinely want to turn over a new leaf, but we know it probably won’t happen because of the trail of blood they’ve left behind them.
One of the more interesting things The Highwaymen does is to not let us see the faces of Bonnie and Clyde until the end of the film for the inevitable hail of bullets. We don’t have the same empathy that we would if we got to know these people (although in my mind whenever they’re talked about the image remains that of Beatty and Dunaway). It allows the film to focus on Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), two aging Texas Rangers who are brought out of retirement by a reluctant Governor (Kathy Bates). The film is really a simplified, conservative re-think of the entire Bonnie and Clyde myth: The Highwaymen takes the position that these were bad people who didn’t deserve the attention and legend that has been built up around them. The real heroes are the grizzled pair out to hunt them down. There is no real examination of the myth that grew so quickly around these two outlaws.
Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) and writer John Fusco do well with the period detail – even staging some visuals that provide a nice link to the 1967 film, particularly when the two lawmen are on dusty roads driving by seemingly endless fields and depression era towns. The cars, the clothes and the art direction feel very 1934.
But ultimately they commit the cardinal sin of trying to tell a straightforward story about the hunt for killers that isn’t nearly as interesting as what the killers are doing – and how they’ve been able to elude the law for as long as they have. This film takes the simplistic position that Bonnie and Clyde are bad, the cult that’s growing up around them needs to be squashed (but no conjecture about why the cult grew), and law and order need to triumph at all costs. I don’t disagree with that basic premises if that’s the story you want to tell, but then at least make the story of getting Bonnie and Clyde more interesting – we don’t really get a sense as to how these two old Texas Rangers are doing what they do. We know they’re tough, brave and it feels like they’re smart, but we don’t get to see much more.
What we do see is the desire to debunk the Bonnie and Clyde myth above all else, but the filmmakers aren’t able to replace it with the clean cut, heroic story the way they would like.
Thankfully both Costner and Harrelson are doing really good work as Hamer and Gault. Costner – an often-underrated actor – continues to impress as he really taps into the tough, aging idea of a 1930’s renegade lawmen. There’s a lot of silence and testosterone in this performance – much like both Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood back in the day. Harrelson also does nice work as the more comical and free wheeling of the two. Another plus: both actors have a lack of onscreen vanity that is refreshing. They know they’re getting older, it shows, and they make it work for them. There’s no attempt to glamorize and hide it. Kathy Bates is also good in her few scenes as the no-nonsense Governor of Texas.
When the end finally comes after a long two hours and 12 minutes, we are anxious to see the final shoot out for a couple of reasons. First, we knew what the ending would be going in and we want to see how they the filmmakers approach it. Second, we want to know if they are going to top the ending that Penn gave the pair in 1967. In Bonnie and Clyde, when they pull over to the side of the road to help their gang mate’s father, we aren’t ready for what’s next but then we quickly realize it’s a set-up. The old man they’re helping looks toward some rustling bushes, he then rolls under his truck, there’s a cut to Bonnie and Clyde sharing knowing looks, and then from the bushes a hail of bullets that seems to last forever. It’s a shocking, fitting, and perfectly filmed ending to an engrossing story and an amazing film.
The Highwaymen doesn’t top that. We know the shoot out is coming and it’s a bit of an anti-climax. What the filmmakers do, though, is give us more of what happened after the ambush. The characters have been machine-gunned to death in the car, then we see the car being pulled through the main street of town as the many onlookers (fans?) try to get a glimpse of or touch the dead pair. It’s a startling visual and one that confirms that an examination of the cult that grew up around Bonnie and Clyde might have been a more interesting way to go, rather then focusing on the two men who finally got them.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.