The Highwaymen

 

            This is the non-romanticized version of Bonnie and Clyde.  It's 1934.  The country is in the fierce grip of the kind of economic depression that drives homeless people to set up tent camps, except they're evident in every town.  Money is scarce.  So is trust in the banking system.  “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) is Governor in Texas, and she has disbanded the Texas Rangers because she thought they were a rogue group that didn't take directives from anybody, which actually was pretty much true.

The trouble is, the outlaw Clyde Barrow and his girlfriend Bonnie Parker were on a robbing and killing spree, and the official law enforcement agencies couldn't seem to track them down.  So “Ma” Ferguson finally agrees to contract with two retired Texas Rangers, but with the official status of “Highwaymen”--that is, attached to no particular law enforcement agency, and only having jurisdiction in the State of Texas (a technicality they ignored).

            Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) had married well and retired comfortably, but when they came to ask him if he'd be willing, his wife Gladys (Kim Dickens) knew that he couldn't refuse.  His old partner Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) lived in more modest circumstances, with his grown daughter and her son, and Maney apparently enjoyed the bottle a little too much, which almost made Frank decide to do this alone.  But Maney talked Frank into letting him come, as long as Maney promised not to drink (except he did) and not to sing (which he also did).

            The Barrow gang was hard to track, because they kept changing locations constantly.  They pulled off a daring breakout in a prison chain gang, recovering some of their gang members.  They would rob rural gas stations, and steal cars, and if any unsuspecting sheriff happened to try to stop them, they just mowed him down.  It's a little hard to figure why Bonnie and Clyde were so romanticized by the public.  They didn't rob from the rich and give to the poor.  They just robbed.  They killed law enforcement officers.  Perhaps their grab at fame and fortune on the run was a kind of fantasy for many of the hard-working people who were ground down by the system.  Bonnie and Clyde were thumbing their noses at the system, and getting away with it.  That is, until the inevitable end of the line.

            Costner and Harrelson work well together in these roles.  Somehow they successfully portray both a certain old-school savvy and a gone-to-seed kind of outdatedness, as if the world has passed them by, and they know it, but they're out there doggedly doing their job, anyway.  The story of their tracking the elusive Barrow gang is filled with dead ends, frustrating false leads, and tedious vigils, but Director John Lee Hancock manages to move the action along just enough to maintain our interest.  It's not the romantic version like the 1967 “Bonnie and Clyde” starring the glamorous Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty at the height of their star powers.  It's more like two old hunting dogs who won't give up on their prey, despite the fact that they aren't young and strong anymore.  It's gritty, with deliberate pacing, featuring two humorless, methodical former lawmen.  But it works, partly because it's a true story.  And partly because even after everyone involved is long gone, Bonnie and Clyde still manage to capture the public imagination.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association