Only at a time when Game of Thrones is barreling toward its final episode on HBO and Avengers: Endgame is closing out a 20-plus-film blockbuster franchise in theaters would anything starring Kevin Kostner and Woody Harrelson weigh in as a small art film. Yet no one watching The Highwaymen on Netflix can quite shake the feeling that it is. The delightful feeling.
Netflix original films, of course, are riding high after the Academy Award success of Roma, released both on the home subscription service and in theaters. We live in strange times indeed, when moviegoers decide on the basis of lifestyle more than finances where they want to encounter movies. The Highwaymen is at present only on Netflix. Surrender to its two hours of character-driven drama if you have access.
This is a “Bonnie and Clyde movie” in which 1930s outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow barely put in an appearance. Movie lovers will be thrust immediately into a contrast with Arthur Penn’s iconic Bonnie and Clyde from 1967, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the fancy-dressing folk heroes who robbed banks and killed innocent people along the backroads of middle America during the Depression. No one who saw Penn’s slow-motion ballet of bullets shredding Bonnie and Clyde at the end is likely to have forgotten it yet. Or ever.
The “Highwaymen” of the title, played by Kostner and Harrelson, are a pair of retired Texas Rangers – the first taking up a life of comfort by marrying well and the other a sad, nearly penniless life with his grown daughter and her child. There’s Texas politics afoot, including the recent disbanding of the Rangers as anachronisms from a time before lawmen worried about gunning down people. When the two are asked to come out of retirement to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde, they are not merely joining a 1,000-man manhunt. They are drafted to find and kill the pair, along with anyone who gets in their way.
With some affection, Kostner and Harrelson turn Highwaymen into something of a “buddy picture.” They eat and sleep side by side in the car as they trace the flimsiest leads thousands of miles through wide open spaces we’re told are Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and finally, fatefully, Louisiana. Though the two take their lumps from this new breed of law enforcement as the bodies pile up, especially from the dapper, educated agents of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, they use their old-fashioned tracking skills to pick up on the one lead that points them toward an empty stretch of road near the town of Arcadia.
There are many memorable scenes in The Highwaymen, including one vicious attack on Harrelson’s character in a public restroom (his toughness here echoing, say, Gene Hackman’s in The French Connection). But nothing beats Kostner’s encounter with Clyde’s father in the man’s rundown auto repair shop in Dallas. The two, adversaries by situation, actually bond before our eyes in a fascinating way, sharing memories and eventually reaching the same unavoidable conclusion.
Directed with grit and many shadows by John Lee Hancock, the film does a remarkable job of evoking time and place, starting with the cheering mobs that welcomed Bonnie and Clyde everywhere they traveled through a region that felt banks deserved to be robbed – and later lined up to pay their respects at the two robbers’ funerals. And because the camera follows Kostner and Harrelson up and down what was then called the Dust Bowl, it shows also the camps of desperate migrants immortalized by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow found a way out of the era’s crushing poverty and hopelessness. But they stole other people’s money and other’s people’s lives to do it. History pointed them toward Arcadia, Louisiana, on May 23, 1934. Each seeking redemption of his own, Frank Hamer and Maney Gault were waiting.