Review by C.J. Bunce
Eighty-five years ago today, April 1, 1934, two Texas highway patrolmen, 26-year-old Edward Wheeler and 22-year-old Holloway Murphy were on motorcycle patrol, checking on a car they thought may need assistance. Instead, they were gunned down by Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. It was Easter Sunday. The two notorious criminals had repeatedly evaded the law, in part because they were sheltered in an era where the stupidity of the masses outweighed sense and a large segment of the populace viewed them as some kind of folk heroes. Despite being captured by two former Texas Rangers, Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, that legendary hero status stuck somehow, thanks in part to Hollywood, and specifically the rather popular and also critically acclaimed movie Bonnie and Clyde starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. That film portrayed a rollicking, at times humorous, ride, which in fact, shared little of substance about the criminals and their victims. Hollywood is now doing an about-face with a new, edgy, thoughtful drama, which includes the murders of Wheeler and Murphy and others, in director John Lee Hancock‘s The Highwaymen, now on Netflix.
Hancock, who wrote screenplays for the Kevin Costner/Clint Eastwood film A Perfect World, the screenplay for Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and wrote and directed the 2004 version of The Alamo, offers up a reserved, measured tale not of the infamous criminals this time, but the two aging men, Hamer and Gault, who knew how to track and kill criminals. That’s thanks to a script by John Fusco, who has experience writing historical accounts for the screen, as found in his Billy the Kid story Young Guns, the Babe Ruth biopic Babe, the 1890s horse rider tale Hidalgo, and his heavily researched series Marco Polo. Despite the sometimes dry “historical drama” label, The Highwaymen is by no means devoid of compelling storytelling. Plus, headlined by Kevin Costner, playing the elder more experienced former Ranger Frank Hamer, and Woody Harrelson as the slightly less experienced B.M. “Maney” Gault, the film showcases the chemistry between the duo. In one key dramatic sequence the two lawmen come upon a temporary residence for the criminals, looking for clues among the closeted clothing in what could be the bedroom of any small town couple of the day. But Harrelson may get the most satisfying scene, as he responds to being cornered by a group of Barrow supporters while in a public restroom.
The film is fueled by a compelling musical score by Thomas Newman (Spectre, Skyfall, Road to Perdition, The Shawshank Redemption, Fried Green Tomatoes, The Man With One Red Shoe), the kind of a soundtrack that will no doubt stand well as its own creative work. His score sets the tempo of the picture while not overtaking it, as happened with Ennio Morricone’s Oscar-nominated score for Costner’s The Untouchables, a similar era film that will no doubt be compared to The Highwaymen. Newman’s music is entirely different, a balance of post-Civil War, Western, and Depression-era motifs with guitar that echoes the former Rangers’ cowboy, horse-riding past. Cinematographer John Schwartzman delivers the kind of bleak, spacious, 1930s America perhaps last scene in László Kovács’ film work on Peter Bogdanovich’s depression-era film Paper Moon.
Many times the end of the film is what drives the story, but here it’s the road taken and decisions made by Hamer and Gault, as contrasted with the temporary psychosis of sorts of the poverty-ridden masses of the 1930s in the Midwest and South Central U.S. who see the gang as heroes, a savvy Texas governor who hedges her bets (another Molly Brown-type played convincingly by Kathy Bates), and her lackey who hires the ex-Rangers, played by the compelling character actor John Carroll Lynch. Intentionally, cunningly, and maybe even furtively, the production didn’t cast the roles of Barrow and Parker with familiar, big-name matinee actors.
In theme The Highwaymen takes a bit of an Unforgiven approach. The acclaimed Clint Eastwood modern Western attempted to tell a deep story about an old gunmen forced out of his retirement to avenge innocents a la The Seven Samurai. Unforgiven was too Hollywoodized of a drama for my sense of justice and Westerns. Fans of Eastwood and co-star Gene Hackman may not see the comparison, but I think The Highwaymen shows the exertion and toil of its elder heroes in a more believable and realistic way. This film is much closer in its success to Max Allan Collins’ skillful novel Road to Perdition.
Plus all the vintage cars are a visual treat, and the period costumes by designer Daniel Orlandi (Logan, Dark Phoenix, Frost/Nixon) are excellent.
The film and screenplay have been in development for several years, and Robert Redford originally was attached to John Fusco‘s screenplay hoping to star in the film with Paul Newman as the final film in his trilogy with Newman that included Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. Like watching Costner play the hunted criminal in A Perfect World and now play lawman Hamer, having Redford and Newman go full circle from outlaws Butch and Sundance to the lawmen in this story would have been quite the finish for the pair. Yet Costner and Harrelson make a worthy replacement team, and after Harrelson’s gritty older mentor role in Solo: A Star Wars Story, as a fan I can hardly wait to see what he does next.
An unexpected, interesting character study that tries to right some wrongs of stories of the past for the real-life victims and heroes involved, a completely engaging film for Costner and Harrelson fans, and a film that runs circles around the ethereal 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, The Highwaymen is available now, exclusively on Netflix.