Fifty years ago, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde fired the first salvo in the New Hollywood revolution by portraying the infamous outlaws as fight-the-man folk heroes. That subtext, not to mention Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s incendiary performances, turned the movie into a history lesson that felt surprisingly timely to the ’60s counterculture. It didn’t just tap into the zeitgeist, it struck it like a bolt of lightning. Bonnie and Clyde’s cheeky tagline didn’t hurt either: “They’re young… they’re in love… and they kill people.”
Now, a half-century later, director John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen resurrects that story and retells it from the other side of the tommy gun, focusing on the two grizzled Texas Rangers who brought down the on-the-lam lovers in a hail of bullets. Traditional where Bonnie and Clyde was cutting-edge, Hancock’s film (which gets a two-week run in theaters before heading to Netflix on March 29) takes its time. It’s an old-fashioned road movie with two stars playing in the laid-back, mellow key of world-weary grumpiness.
It’s an odd choice, in a way. But it certainly helps that those two stars are Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson. They play Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, former partners who’ve been put out to pasture. And they’ve both been retired long enough to miss the thrill of the hunt. Costner’s Frank finds himself in a life of comfort and boredom. His wife (an excellent Kim Dickens) likes having him around at home, even though it’s hard to see why. He’s a curmudgeon with a pack-a-day rasp and pet boar as a guard dog. Harrelson’s Maney, on the other hand, is lost without his badge, living in a repossessed shack in Lubbock and still haunted by the horrors of a job that had him killing Mexicans by the dozen.
As Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow’s celebrity reign of terror spreads across the South, Texas governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) reluctantly agrees to pull the men out of retirement and sic them on the headline-grabbing antiheroes. And so, reunited behind the wheel of Frank’s Ford, the two former partners bicker and growl while they use their old-school bloodhound skills and play hunches to catch their glamorous quarry.
Costner and Harrelson have an easy, believable rapport. You like spending time in their company — even if they don’t much enjoy each other’s. And the main joy of the film is watching them play off one another, whether they’re cracking informants’ skulls or teasing each other about their frequent trips to the toilet.
Hancock, who’s probably best known for The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks (but should be best known for 2002’s The Rookie), shoots the film with a poetic eye for the landscape and the sort of Depression-era details you’d see in a Walker Evans photograph. Still, his film could’ve used a little more sizzle and snap. It finally comes alive at the end, when the bloody date with destiny we all know is coming finally arrives in spectacularly violent fashion. Until then, The Highwaymen is a leisurely ride with a pair of actors who know how to do a lot by not doing too much. It won’t reinvent cinema the way that Bonnie and Clyde once did. But it’s a ride worth taking nonetheless. B
More movie reviews: