“The Highwaymen” is the antidote to “Bonnie and Clyde.” It has none of the glamour and romanticism of that crime caper. And that’s the point.
Directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”), it stars Kevin Costner as Frank Hamer and Woody Harrelson as Maney Gault, the real-life former Texas Rangers who came out of retirement in 1934 to hunt the ballyhooed outlaw couple. But while the 1967 Arthur Penn film about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow was often comic and energetic, rife with the charisma that made the duo folk heroes despite being unabashed killers — Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the roles probably had a lot to do with that charm — this is a decidedly grown-up meditation on the price of violence and the thoughtlessness of idol worship.
It’s also truer to the facts in its portrayal of Hamer, who’s a fool in the Penn film but here is a low-key, shoe-leather detective. And a good one at that. The film does allow some old-age humor, as when Hamer practices his shooting for the first time in years (and it shows), or when he has to pursue a teen suspect on foot, with non-action-hero results. But the weight of the task is always present in his mind, especially as Bonnie and Clyde’s killing spree continues two steps ahead of him.
The superstar criminals are a major presence in the film, but mostly through the shadow they cast. Played by Emily Brobst and Edward Bossert, they’re rarely on-screen.
Instead, the movie captures, through the eyes of common people, the perceived rebel spirit that made the couple folk heroes during the Depression. It establishes through wardrobe and production design how rough that era was. It’s not just a setting; it’s a grim and desperate worldview. The film also provides, as a counterpoint to the couple’s fandom, the grim reality of their actions and Hamer and Gault’s revulsion to the violence.
Screenwriter John Fusco (“Thunderheart”) provides plenty of memorably folksy dialogue. “If today was a fish, I’d throw the [expletive deleted] back,” says the exasperated governor, played by Kathy Bates. But he and Hancock also let a great deal be told through effective and touching conversations. Hamer’s relationship with wife Gladys (Kim Dickens) comes across mostly in this manner.
There’s also plenty of grumpy-old-men comedy in the Hamer-Gault relationship. But the actors expertly convey a sense of shared history, a pecking order and ancient camaraderie without relying on “You remember that time?” clichés.
In fact, the distinct lack of crime-movie macho pronouncements allows Hamer’s all-business seriousness and Gault’s qualms to ring true. Death is dealt with, not swept aside with a one-liner. Coming upon an unintended victim of the pursuit, Gault is genuinely shaken, and Harrelson sells it.
As Hamer, Costner turns in yet another remarkable performance. There are no false moves in his portrayal of Hamer, no portentousness, just focus and well-earned worry. When a child asks, “Was you really Frank Hamer?” we believe he was.
“The Highwaymen” confronts the cost of violence. Even an angry fistfight leads to regret. These two retirees have blood on their hands from their storied Ranger past, and neither has washed it off.
That sobriety casts the famous outlaw couple in quite a different light than the Penn film or the adoration of their contemporaneous fans. They’re killers, and that’s no laughing matter. Despite the film’s obvious sympathy with the average folks struggling to get by, and their rooting for the two criminals who seem to be beating the system, Bonnie and Clyde’s celebrity disturbs.