There’s a scene in director John Lee Hancock’s film “The Highwaymen” which chronicles the astounding multi-city hunt for the infamous criminals Bonnie Parker (Emily Probst) and Clyde Barrow (Edward Bossert) by detectives Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), that perfectly defines the story. It’s when Frank and Maney, semi-retired rangers recruited back on the scene for the high-profile case, stop inside a quaint home where they think their targets might be only to find a quintessential pencil dress and blue suit worn throughout the Great Depression hanging in the closet. “They were playing house,” Frank says.
It’s an important line because, though Frank is referring to Bonnie and Clyde’s bizarrely romantic relationship, it highlights the fact that everything about the main characters in “The Highwaymen” hinges on identity and perception. Frank is a man of a certain age who’s gotten comfortable spending his retirement years hanging out at home, throwing dinner parties with his wife Gladys’ (Kim Dickens) fake friends, and siccing his dog on any unfriendly face that enters his driveway. He’s quietly tried to suppress the urge to return to work and fight crime. He sees an opportunity to try to prove to himself and others that he is still a formidable force — despite no longer having any real aim with a gun anymore.
For years, a restless Maney has been slinking around his adult daughter’s small home where he has no real responsibilities except to occasionally drive his grandson to school. He’s just yearning to slip back on his Dragnet attire. Governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) is quick to project the look of confidence at a news conference filled with panicking reporters demanding that Bonnie and Clyde be brought to justice, then turns around and scolds her all-male team who confirm they have absolutely zero answers to how to bring down the outlaw couple. Meanwhile, the fascinating Bonnie and Clyde, both young lovers and cold-blooded killers, have transfixed their fans across the country who swarm their car whenever they’re in town and wear their signature fitted dress with a cinched waist and a classic suit and tie. They’re exact replicas of their favorite idols in a lawless world.
An interesting choice that Hancock made was never showing Bonnie and Clyde’s faces until the end of the film when they meet their demise. We see them mostly as figures in distant, shadowy views, which emphasized how so incredibly ordinary and analogous they are to everyone else. Just before they are riddled with Frank and Maney’s bullets at the end of the film, Hancock smartly illuminates both their faces for the first time and what we see are two terrified young people (Bonnie was 23 and Clyde was 24 when they died) filled with shock.
That’s also the beauty of costume designer Daniel Orlandi’s (“Logan”) immaculately tailored clothes in the film — they underscore each character’s celebrity appeal as they grapple with their far less glamorous reality. It almost feels like cops and robbers cosplay, complete with Frank’s whole demeanor shifting from docile husband to an intimidating, gruff-voiced detective, and Maney finding his own sense of purpose on the case and being able to work out the moral demons from his past. This also connects to the fact that Frank’s real-life widow sued the studio after the release of the 1967 film “Bonnie & Clyde,” claiming it dumbed him down for entertainment. Everyone is trying to prove something to themselves and others and it all comes down to validation and, perhaps even more poignantly, vindication.
“The Highwaymen” borrows from “No Country for Old Men,” including its old Western style, aging male law enforcers struggling with being fazed out, and they even both star Harrelson. But the new film is such a slow burn that it’s hard to stay invested in it. There’s actually a joke throughout the film that neither Frank nor Maney can run after anybody, which elicits as much empathy as it does laughter. (Who signs up to go on a wild goose chase with the two most dangerous criminals in the country but aren’t able to keep up their pace?) That’s why the decision to reframe Bonnie and Clyde’s story through the eyes of the detectives who caught them, so that their savviness and eventual celebrity can be centered, is actually effective. Still, that’s not enough to make an entertaining film that grips the audience start to finish.
Though “The Highwaymen” starts out with a crackling action sequence, the rest of the film never lives up to it. Hancock spends a whole lot of time highlighting Frank and Maney’s odd-couple relationship as they exchange long monologues and continue to run into dead ends and random characters along their search. In doing so, the chase is more like a slow creep to the finish line.
So, “The Highwaymen” isn’t about heart-thumping car chases and saloon brawls. It’s about retelling Frank and Haney’s stories with dignity. Though the movie is not without a few stereotypical western tropes (at one point, Maney confessed that he dreamed about “dead Mexicans”), at its best it’s an interesting story written by John Fusco about two men struggling with the deceit of image and the betrayal of reality.