A buddy cop tale with a historical twist, this nihilistic Netflix drama leans too heavily on worn-out cliches.
The story of the men who took down Bonnie and Clyde is recounted in The Highwaymen (2019), written by John Fusco and directed by John Lee Hancock. This bleak Netflix production aims to de-glamorize the infamous outlaw lovers with a more nuanced perspective, but still can’t help indulging in a few popular myths.
When Bonnie Parker (Emily Brobst) and Clyde Barrow (Edward Bossert) mastermind a prison farm escape, Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) convinces Texas Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) to bring ex-Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) out of retirement. Hamer agrees, and after purchasing a small arsenal of weapons, he reluctantly teams up with Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), another ex-Ranger past his prime.
Despite being “too old for this shit”, Hamer and Gault use experience and gut instinct to show up a team of FBI agents utilizing the latest law enforcement techniques, led by Agent Kendale (Jason Davis). After a string of false leads and narrow misses, the elderly lawmen finally gripe, complain, and manipulate their way into locating the outlaw gang. A young deputy named Ted Hinton (Thomas Mann), who grew up with Bonnie Parker, is there to provide dark irony and identify the criminals’ bullet-riddled bodies.
Channeling Neo-Westerns like No Country for Old Men (2007) and Wind River (2017), and to some extent the TV series True Detective, The Highwaymen focuses on a life-or-death pursuit through an unforgiving and bleak environment, with characters the modern world has left behind. Unfortunately, and despite its original contribution to the Bonnie and Clyde filmography, it comes across as an unimaginative imitation of these other works.
Historically, Clyde Barrow and his gang were petty criminals who robbed, kidnapped, and murdered their way across several states. By 1934, the gang was allegedly responsible for 13 murders, including nine police officers. History would probably have forgotten them if not for Clyde’s lover, Bonnie Parker, a waifish thrill-seeker who accompanied the gang. The story of a good girl gone bad was irresistible to the American press and public, but Bonnie and Clyde’s run ended in a hail of bullets when lawmen ambushed their car in rural Louisiana.
Unlike other films about Bonnie and Clyde, The Highwaymen focuses on Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, the ex-lawmen who tracked them down and arranged the ambush. The filmmaker’s attention to historical detail is admirable, even including Texas’ first female governor, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson. But The Highwaymen falls into the same trap as all the other films by portraying Bonnie Parker as a submachine gun toting cold blooded killer. In really, there’s no evidence she ever fired a shot.
If you enjoy dreary, depressing, and monotone films that completely lack creativity, or if you’re a fan of classic cars, you’ll love The Highwaymen. But seriously, it’s a competent film with a great lead cast and a different take on a familiar story. It just fails to do anything interesting with the genre. The filmmakers didn’t take any risks.
The Highwaymen was released on Netflix, so there are no box office returns, but it currently has a 53% positive critic rating and 78% audience rating on RottenTomatoes. Overall, I’d put my rating at somewhere between those two numbers.