“Outlaws always go home,” Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) observes to his partner, Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner), in The Highwaymen, John Lee Hancock’s intimate but two-fisted look at the aging lawmen’s pursuit of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. That dialogue comes late in the film, but it functions as an important thematic dichotomy. Bonnie and Clyde were hell-raising sociopaths beloved by radical youth and condemned by law enforcement. Hamer and Gault are their mirror image: outlaws of time, not order.
Hancock’s directorial approach has always been mild. Sure, he directed Sandra Bullock to an Oscar in The Blind Side, but his prerogative has always seemed to be a shortcut to winning over audiences. Even his last film, 2016’s The Founder, about the sinister machinations that Ray Kroc took to globalize McDonald’s, comes off as light-footed, only made worthwhile by Michael Keaton’s quietly villainous performance. It’s not to say he’s a bad director—his heart is maybe too tight on his sleeve. This one, however, is different.
He brings levity to The Highwaymen, especially in the impeccable chemistry between Costner and Harrelson. Both native Texans, they play off each other with overwhelming success. The Texas Rangers are vestiges of another era, left to mundane lives in the midst of the Depression.
Hamer is a family man devoted to his beloved wife, Gladys (Kim Dickens). Gault lives in a drunken haze. Early on, it’s not hard to compare their journey to that of the partnership between Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in the first season of HBO’s True Detective, albeit this time with the erstwhile Marty Hart as the loose cannon. At first, their investigation seems repetitive and derivative, but the film progresses, so does the investment in the men’s chance at riding into the sunset.
The Highwaymen is Hancock’s best film
The Highwaymen is Hancock’s best film as a director and the first of his work to come close to the fatalism of his screenwriting breakout, 1993’s A Perfect World. Costner starred in Clint Eastwood’s supremely underrated Unforgiven follow-up, which took a similar approach to cop-and-robber allegory in Texas.
Like that film, this takes a leisurely pace with no need to track how long the scenes take to get from point A to point B. In that regard, The Highwaymen is a film out of time. When Hamer and Gault get into rougher territory pursuing Bonnie and Clyde, it has the sensibility of the kind of thing John Milius and Walter Hill thrived on in their heyday: a rare steak wrapped in bacon and soaked in a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.
Its sense of humor is wicked as well. Gault’s constant need to urinate culminates in him manhandling a gang of Barrow’s cronies in a bar bathroom. An early scene has Hamer on a shopping spree in a gun shop whose payoff in the endgame is equally absurd. If anything, Hancock’s free spirit meshes beautifully with the exhaustively researched screenplay by John Fusco, a veteran whose credits reach back to the Young Guns films.
I believe it was an old writer friend who told me that the role of the investigator of a crime story is always expendable. His reason was that they impede the intrigue of the more morally ambiguous elements in play. Luckily, Fusco’s characterizations are red meat for Costner and Harrelson, both of whom I can’t overstate enough how good they are. Harrelson is one of those rare performers who is never beholden to one archetype and therefore never gives an uninteresting performance. That does not change here.
However, it’s Costner that is the real revelation. It’s a shame that pop culture diluted his worth for so long over his big-budget missteps. Looking back at his first decade as an A-lister, his place as a movie star is more than earned, a near-perfect blend of award winners and crowd pleasers on his slate.
As Frank Hamer, Costner gets a chance to reflect on those days. It’s an allegorical role of sorts; the older Hamer isn’t as nimble as he was in his prime, but his appeal goes untarnished. Intentional or not, his performance as Hamer clearly calls back to his commandeering breakout as Elliot Ness in The Untouchables.
If there’s any critical notes I have, it’s the third act’s literal turn towards overkill and the gradual fadeaway of its supporting cast. Kathy Bates comes strong in the first act as Texas governor Ma Ferguson, as does John Carroll Lynch as Lee Carroll, the man who recruits Hamer and Gault. Both actors are ultimately shortchanged, although we do get a compelling scene between Costner and the great William Sadler, playing Barrow’s father.
The Highwaymen is a delight. They don’t make them like this anymore. In other news, I’m secretly a baby boomer.
The Highwaymen is now playing in select theatres nationwide. It premieres globally on Netflix March 29.
A word on Netflix…
The planet’s most ubiquitous streaming service, Netflix is an inescapable empire. Since they jumped into the film industry, we’ve seen a rather heated debate over the “theatrical” merit of their films. Are you Team Spielberg (television) or Team Cuarón (cinema)? Admittedly, the debate is ridiculous.
Look at HBO movies like Behind the Candelabra and especially And the Band Played On, both of which would have been Oscar juggernauts had they been theatrical releases.
Not only do I commend Netflix for releasing a film as enjoyable as The Highwaymen, its extended two-week theatrical window is proof that they want to take the theatrical experience seriously—something moviegoers, including me, feared they would not.
I wouldn’t say this is sprung from Roma, which got a three-week jump and played in theaters for months after it was available for streaming. Earlier 2019 films like Velvet Buzzsaw and Triple Frontier got a one-week theatrical run. The Highwaymen getting two weeks, at least to my eyes, seems special.
Look at their expanding footprint and consider the rumors of Martin Scorsese lobbying for The Irishman to get a wide release in theaters. Hell, even the teaser they released before the Oscars was propped up by a “IN THEATERS” in big letters. There’s a new sentiment that Netflix is not changing the game by delivering theatrical films to consumers unwilling to pay to see, they’re inverting our expectations. For cinephiles, that’s great news.