' ' Cinema Romantico: The Highwaymen

Thursday, May 09, 2019

The Highwaymen

When retired Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) is prodded out of retirement to track down Depression Era outlaws Bonnie and Clyde, he gets out of his old, trusty pistol, finds a few kids kicking around a can, and has them toss the can in the air so he can fire off a few practice shots. None of his bullets, at first, connect. It suggests a similar scene from 1992’s “Unforgiven” wherein Clint Eastwood's way-past-his-prime murderous outlaw William Munny, agreeing to track a bounty, tries his gauging his rusty skills by shooting at a can with his pistol. He keeps missing too, and then goes and grabs a double-barrel shotgun and blasts the can to kingdom come. It’s a comic beat, different from “The Highwaymen”, which concludes more triumphantly, Frank finally connecting with the flying can, proving he’s still got at least part of it. Indeed, if “Unforgiven” frequently dissected movie myths with acute, askew humor, Netflix’s “The Highwaymen” dissects its own myths in a more solemn, finger-wagging manner, setting the record straight, telling you in no uncertain terms that, look, Bonnie & Clyde were not nice people, okay. And that’s not a bad message, I suppose, given we live in a world where myths are reinforced and then lived out. You just wish director John Lee Hancock tore things down with as much witty vim and vigor as “Unforgiven.”

The closest “The Highwaymen” comes to any kind of wit is in the form of Hamer’s also retired Ranger pal Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), who is not enlisted by Hamer in the cause so much as just sort of showing up and forcing his way in. In Harrelson’s great robust comicality playing off Costner’s tight-lipped humorlessness the two make a predictable if nevertheless enjoyable Odd Couple as they cruise the back roads of Texas. This laconic air is more emblematic of the film than Bonnie & Clyde’s (Emily Brobst & Edward Bossert) notorious violence, which is glimpsed merely in small, oddly tasteful flourishes, at odds with their supposed empty-hearted malice and with the movie’s own supposed condemnation of it.

These Highwaymen, however, are not merely up against young killers but young bucks in their own law-enforcing field who frequently show up after the fact and then just stand there with smug looks, evoking the idea of grumpy old men watching the world pass them by, a la Ed Tom Bell of “No Country For Old Men”, not that Hancock’s film, written by John Fusco, has any intention of indulging metaphysics, or even anything mildly challenging really. No, the killer themselves are specters, seen from oblique angles, like a limping Bonnie’s shoes dragging through the dirt, or the hand of Clyde Barrow as he ashes a cigarette out the car window. Hancock is more interested in society’s romanticizing these outlaws, though the ideas of what they truly represent to Depression riddled populace goes unexplored, shouted down when broached. And if these Rangers can’t come to grips with a world where such killers are held up as heroes, it renders Bonnie and Clyde’s infamously ghastly comeuppance, riddled with bullets by Hamer, Gault and their de-facto crew, as an attempt to kill off such mythmaking, though the closing scenes, both the movie’s and the closing-credit photos make clear this is not the case.

But if “The Highwaymen” is an elegy for the world these men inhabit, it takes that idea a bit too literally in its aesthetic, opting for a mournful score and a pace that is positively ponderous, not so much evoking a long sigh as a long yawn, a road trip to somnolence, lumbering along like Hamer and Gault in a foot chase with a little kid bearing a clue. And if in focusing on the lawmen rather than the outlaws, “The Highwaymen” becomes a companion piece to Arthur Penn’s landmark 1967 “Bonnie & Clyde” (full disclosure: I have a “Bonnie & Clyde“ poster on my home office wall), it also becomes a companion piece in how Penn’s hyper-stylized, joyous and free piece of New Hollywood so noticeably clashes against Hancock’s dull, overly serious filmmaking, feeling as much like a relic as his characters.

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