Glenn Garvin TV Reviews

The Highwaymen Tells the Bonnie and Clyde Story from the Deputies' Perspective

Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson lead a brutal chase across Texas.

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'The Highwaymen'
'The Highwaymen,' Netflix

The Highwaymen. Available now on Netflix.

The story of Depression-era outlaws Bonnie and Clyde has been told many times, in just about every conceivable perspective, except one: that of the law enforcement officers who pursued them.

Knock that concept off the list with the arrival of Netflix's excellent The Highwaymen, starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the two Texas deputies who outfoxed and outgunned their quarry.

Occasionally funny and often grim, The Highwaymen is sometimes reminiscent of another buddy movie involving a posse in pursuit of a famous outlaw duo, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, with its poles reversed.

That's no coincidence; The Highwaymen was originally written as a vehicle for Robert Redford and Paul Newman playing the aging lawmen Frank Hamer and Maney Gault. (Newman died in 2008, which gives you an idea of how long this show has been kicking around in development.)

Instead, Costner wound up as Hamer, a gimlet-eyed ex-Texas Ranger with more than 50 notches on his guns, while Harrelson plays his old partner, the wisecracking Gault. (Dust kicking up everywhere after he wildly empties his six-shooter at a target, Gault points to the single mark on the target and exclaims in wide-eyed wonder: "Look at that, every shot right through the same hole!")

But where Butch Cassidy was mostly light-hearted and treated its outlaw protagonists as pranksters rather than criminals, The Highwaymen takes a brutally Manichean view of its cops and robbers.

Bonnie and Clyde barely appear on screen, and when they do, they're portrayed not as populist Robin Hoods but as bank-robbing, cop-killing sociopaths. Hamer and Gault, if not exactly angels, are single-minded avengers, plucked from retirement by a Texas prison official bitter that one of his guards was killed in a jailbreak engineered by the outlaws.

They live in their car for months at a time, ignoring legal niceties like warrants and even jurisdiction as they give chase, always seemingly one town behind. There is never any question what will happen when the cops catch up. "It's never easy, it's never pretty," Hamer declares when Gault has a moment of doubt. "There's always blood at the end of the road. you know that."

At 57 and 64, their leading-man virility fading, Harrelson and Costner fit comfortably into the roles of the aging lawmen confronting a bewildering and hostile future. (Costner, who also plays the cancer-stricken patriarch of a ranching family on the Paramount Network's Yellowstone, seems particularly adapted to his new status.)

There's a sense of wry self-deprecation as they lose foot chases to young crooks and fumble their quick-draws. Yet there's also a palpable note of fear in Gault's voice as he asks, at the end of one long day: "Do you ever think maybe it ain't in us no more?"

The presence of stars, even if dimming, like Costner and Harrelson, is one of many instances in which The Highwaymen poses the question of how to distinguish a movie from a TV show in the age of streaming services. This is a question not merely of concern to film and TV critics squabbling over turf, but to industry big-chiefs like Steven Spielberg, too.

Netflix alone produced somewhere around 1,500 hours of original programming in 2018, and much of it was difficult to categorize. Its birth-of-rap drama The Get Down, divided into 11 episodes, may seem to be obviously a TV show; but no TV show in history ever had a budget of $12 million an episode.

I don't know what The Highwaymen cost to produce, but it has the sumptuous look and feel of a Hollywood blockbuster, from the presence of its stars to the lush, big-screen photography: shimmering rain, wispy smoke rings, the sere beauty of the summer prairie. And after its debut at South by Southwest, it got a few days in theaters to qualify it for Oscar nominations. The vast majority of The Highwaymen's viewers, though, will see it on their TV screens.

Figuring out The Highwaymen's show-business DNA is precisely the sort of question that would vex its heroes. In another faint whiff of Butch Cassidy, one of the subtexts of The Highwaymen is the encroachment of modernity on an era whose time has run out. Butch and Sundance, sensing the sunset of the Old West, fled to Bolivia. Hamer and Gault's odyssey winds through a countryside dotted with labor camps and repossessed land, the death throes of an America built on the family farm.

And they can scarcely conceal their loathing for the country's dawning tabloid culture. "You ought to be ashamed," Gault snarls at a cop taking money from a reporter in search of lurid details. In the background, you can almost hear the faint cackle of the Ghost of Kardashian Future.

NEXT: Woman at the Center of a Viral 'Creepy Uncle Joe Biden' Photo Says It Wasn't a #MeToo Moment

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  1. Bonnie and Clyde were psychopaths. The 1968 movie was a horrible slander on their victims. It is a shame Newman and Redford never got to make this. I bet they would have been great in it.

    1. You beat me to it!

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    2. Agreed.

    3. this newer vehicle of the myth takes just as many liberties with the truth, albeit from a statist perspective (romanticising government bushwhackers instead of bankrobbers). theres too much wrong with it to list in a comment, but IMO Bonnie gets the worst treatment. At the time of her murder, Bonnie was not under indictment or charged with any crime. Besides the famous photos, there was no evidence or testimony that Bonnie ever participated in the violence of the Barrow gangs activities, serving mostly as an unarmed lookout or getaway driver.This film not only places the gun in Bonnies hand, it has her forcing police to look her in the eyes as she murders them. Most audaciously, the film places the blame for Bonnies murder on Bonnie herself by having her (and no one else) reach for a gun while the noble Hamer valiantly risks his life to tell the pair to put their hands up.

      1. Bonnie & Clyde were not heroes themselves. But there is a significant distinction between being married to a killer (or being in an abusive relationship with a killer) and being a killer yourself. The film erases this distinction, presumably so audiences can feel better about the protagonists gunning down an almost-teenage girl. Theres other stuff – the story of Hamer & co gunning down abgroup of mexicans happened, but inexplicably the film adds a 0 to the total number of mexicans involved. When you gun down a 15 yo in a shootout with 60 violent criminals it might be an honest mistake in an otherwise valiant enterprise. If you gun down a 15 yo in a group of 6 people, it sounds more like you got in a gunfight with a family than a small army. Then theres how Hamer stalked a state congressman in the hopes of shutting down an investigation of Texas Ranger brutality. The Barrow gang killed 12 ppl, 9 of whom were police or prison guards. We will likely never know how many ppl the Texas Rangers killed; Id be willing to bet Hamers personal body count exceeded Barrow’s.

    4. The 1968 movie was fucking ridiculous because it used Bonnie and Clyde as avatars for the counterculture. That’s the only reason it’s considered cinematically significant, but it’s a shit flick.

      The best part of the film was Bonnie and Clyde being machine-gunned to death.

  2. I have never understood the fascination with these goons. Bonnie and Clyde killed a number of civilians, as well as police officers. I know the sex part probably played into it. But, they were hardly some sort of “Robin Hood” gang.

    1. Media is why. The newspapers exaggerated their exploits and made them into heroes. They would write about them robbing evil, corrupt, and greedy banks and downplay the shooting of gas station attendants.

  3. >>> they’re portrayed … as bank-robbing, cop-killing sociopaths

    pikers.

  4. The presence of stars, even if dimming, like Costner and Harrelson,

    Ouch, Glen. Meeowww…

    I like Costner, and yes, we was a bit over-fluffed in the 90s, but as an actor, I do like him. As far as Harrelson is concerned, I’d cautiously say he’s at the top of his game.

    1. I actually thought everyone else was better. There were a few parts where the writing and history told a compelling story and I think Costner was more than competent as Hamer. But next to him Woody Harrelson did his typical job of playing the role of Woody Harrelson as whatever Woody Harrelson-type character he was supposed to be playing. I felt Woody almost cheapened the role to the point that they could’ve had Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, Gibson and Glover, Stallone and Russell, Eastwood and Sheen, Nolte and Murphy, etc.

      Don’t get me wrong, Woody has done some acting, and there are some characters that seem to be written for him but, in this, he seemed like comedic relief in a piece that was trying to be more somber.

      1. I have to respectfully disagree. I thought Woody did some of his best work in this movie.

        Sure Gault was something of a wisecracker, but the scenes of him expressing self-doubt about their mission were brilliant. His eyes,his voice, he was every bit a haunted man with serious moral qualms about what he had gotten into, but fully aware he was in until the end.

        1. I thought Woody did some of his best work in this movie.

          This is almost certainly wrong. I actually liked him better in Solo. But he was at least equally as good as the aging, washed up, wisecracking, respectable, underhanded, haunted drunk redneck in Zombieland, The Hunger Games, Kingpin, A Prairie Home Companion, etc. He was competent playing a less wisecracking more sober role in No Country For Old Men too. But, almost certainly his best work was People vs. Larry Flynt and, ironically, Natural Born Killers. I’d maybe even argue that, ignoring all the other flaws of the movie, his role as LBJ was possibly his best.

  5. I watched it last night and I thought it was good. Took some liberties with the facts as movies almost always do, but the core of the story was accurate. Good acting, good cinemaphotography. Kept me interested even though I knew the basic story.

    I saw somewhere that Netflix spent $49 million on it. Don’t know if that’s accurate or not.

    This movie is generating a backlash among the woke because it “whitewashes” the racist history of the Texas Rangers. It doesn’t really address the history of the Texas Rangers, because both of these guys were actually retired at the time of the events in the movie. If you want to read a temper tantrum worthy of a 4 year-old in the form of a movie review, go read the review at the Guardian.

    1. That comment feels like it’s of a piece with Hamer’s impeccably coiffed and largely silent wife, or the sleek Jaguar that he drives, or his perfectly pressed suit and fedora combo.

      LO Fucking L!

      1. The wife makes clear in the first couple lines of dialogue that she bought the car.
      2. She makes clear what the make is.
      3. Several other characters note the make.
      4. Bonnie and Clyde died before Jaguars were commercially available in the UK.

      This guy was dismissing the “largely silent” wife before she even got out her first 2-3 lines and, as far as I’m concerned, has generally failed at being a critic and is working on failing at being a human being.

      1. Yeah, the movie made it clear that Hamer married into money. And that since it was her family’s money that she pretty much ruled the roost. But a woman exercising financial power in the 1930s doesn’t fit with the reviewer’s world view, so…..

        And in real life, the “silent” wife took actions that ultimately resulted in this movie being made. The ’68 movie invented a scene in which Hamer, played by the goofy Denver Pyle, was taken hostage and humiliated by B&C. Never happened, and his wife sued Penn and the filmmaker and extracted a healthy settlement.

        The review is filled with snarky bullshit like that presumably because he thinks Bonnie and Clyde were the shiz because they only stole from the rich. Neglects to mention that everybody they killed was lower middle class.

        1. And she you robbed a bank before the FDIC, you robbed the entire community. It wasn’t just rich people who lost their savings when Bonnie and Clyde stole it.

    2. This movie is generating a backlash among the woke because it “whitewashes” the racist history of the Texas Rangers. It doesn’t really address the history of the Texas Rangers

      It did allude to it in parts of the dialogue, but from what I’ve seen so far, I don’t get the sense that Hamer or Gault actually regret what they did. And that perspective would be more accurate than any “woke” bullshit coming from the usual suspects.

      What most SJW peddlers don’t realize is that the borderlands, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, were a violent place with or without the whites. Indian tribes, Spanish troops, and Mexican farmers were raiding and killing each other before the first American set foot on Texas soil. Kidnapping or killing someone across the river, on either side, was considered a rite of passage in some of these societies. Considering so many American settlers in Texas came from a martial tradition themselves, they actually fit right in to the regional culture.

      What broke the delicate balance of power was the Civil War, which removed the US Army from the region as a stabilizing force, and the outbreak of violence led to intense post-war suppression, in conjunction with the US’s Indian pacification policy. The Rangers were simply one of the arms that played a role in that.

  6. Very good movie.
    Not great.
    Not as good as Appaloosa.
    B+

    1. Good movie,
      Not very good.
      Not great.

      I do think Woody’s part was well done. His moral uncertainty was generally compelling.

      It’s certainky better than “Traitors” is turning out to be.

      1. I’m not familiar with Traitors
        But I highly recommend Appaloosa.
        Awesome film – Vigo Mortensen, Ed Harris, and Jeremy Irons

        And Woody was good in Highwaymen.

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  8. Aging buddy films seems to be a thing now. Boomers…

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  11. But you must see the WAPO story about how Texas Rangers like these were racists before watching, or you won’t see the movie from a sufficiently woke viewpoint.

    Get Woke

  12. Can’t look at a story like this from contemporary standards. That free wheeling law enforcement style was largely how it was done then. It was largely in keeping with what society writ large wanted and expected.
    Interesting aside: Frank Hamer’s wife sued the studio over his depiction in Bonnie and Clyde, and won a settlement. Movies swing and sway with the popular tide. In-your-face counter culture Robin Hoods were popular, so they got an unrealistically friendly portrayal in the first movie.

  13. I saw this yesterday and it was a great movie, as close to perfect as far as historical accuracy in its portrayal of the hint for Bonnie and Clyde. Interesting that Costner is about the same age as Sean Connery was when they made The Untouchables.

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