Everyone knows the story of Bonnie and Clyde – the infamous cold-blooded criminals that terrorised middle America in the 1930s – mostly thanks to the 1967 film starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the titular lovers. As much of a landmark as that film may have been, in terms of what it portrayed in cinemas, it wasn’t all that close to the true story of the Barrow Gang. This is something that The Highwaymen is determined to rectify.
Instead of having another tale glorify the cruel and heartless exploits of a young couple on the run, The Highwaymen takes place from the perspective of those lawmen tasked with bringing them down. While the outlaws made headlines, these lawmen made history. It’s just a pity that pop culture ignored them for so long.
The Highwaymen begins two years into the exploits of the Barrow Gang, right around January 1934, when Clyde Barrow and the others staged a daring prison breakout for other members of their gang. This jailbreak is what marked the beginning of the end for the gang, as it brought former Texas Ranger Captain Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) out of retirement.
At the time, the Governor of Texas, Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates), had disbanded the rangers due to negative publicity and public outcry over their body counts. But thanks to some wangling from Prison Chief Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch), who swore that every man involved in the breakout that resulted in the death of his guards would be hunted down, a few of the Rangers could come back under the dispensation of Highwaymen – essentially Texas’s traffic police.
With no real government endorsement, police backup, or even authority, Hamer hits the road on what is essentially a suicide mission, considering the notoriety of Bonny and Clyde. Along for the ride (literally) is Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), the only other former Ranger that Hamer could find to join him. Two old dogs brought out of retirement when all else has failed.
While Hamer is the stoic leader of the duo, with a spine made out of steel and a determination to see justice served, Gault is more than just a comedy relief side-kick. A fair amount of the chuckles does come at Gault’s expense, like his surprised fascination with the “new technology” of a wire-tap, but his character also serves as the moral compass of the mission. Hamer and Gault are clearly dealing with trauma, both from their time as Rangers and due to the shocking inhumanity of the criminals they’re hunting, and they’re dealing with them in very different ways.
Going old-school with their approach, Hamer and Gault start to track the movements of the pair, dogging them across the country, visiting places they’ve been, and places Hamer thinks they’d go. In a way, The Highwaymen is a road-trip movie, if that road-trip took place in a cramped Model-T Ford.
Speaking of, the period accuracy of The Highwaymen is something that lovers of all things vintage will adore. Though it takes place in a decade oft-neglected in favour of more popular periods like the
Though they were viewed as romantic rebels by the public, Bonny and Clyde are almost never seen in The Highwaymen. The movie makes a point of putting them on the backburner, instead examining their motivations and history through the eyes of the authority they had turned against. There’s no Robin Hood-esque incentive for the outlaws. They aren’t folk heroes, they’re shown as what they truly were. Anarchists, unforgivingly cruel, stealing and killing as and when it took their fancy.
Ultimately, this is where The Highwaymen is strongest. The film acknowledges (but for the most part ignores) the popular story in favour of the far darker and more complicated history and motivations of the highwaymen themselves. It’s a fascinating, fresh take on the old yarn, and one that is done exceptionally well.
Last Updated: March 11, 2019