Following the Great Depression, bank robbers took on a new level of fame in America. After feeling cheated out of their money, people across the country were reeling. By stealing from the banks, who were insured, outlaws like John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly and became folklore. However, no duo became more iconic than Bonnie Parker and Clyde Darrow. Their image sold sex, money, and death. Telling their story with gritty realism in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde was a seminal moment for cinema. Now, in 2019, the story of the men who caught them comes to life in The Highwaymen starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson.
The Highwaymen begins with Bonnie and Clyde breaking their gang out of prison, and causing a state emergency for the governor (Kathy Bates). After some discussion, Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) recommends that two former members of the disbanded Texas Rangers take on the case. Simmons approaches Frank Hammer (Kevin Costner) with a deal to take out Bonnie and Clyde by any means necessary. After Hammer recruits former partner Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), the two begin chasing down the notorious outlaws.
On its face, The Highwaymen should play as a fun cat and mouse game. However, almost as soon as Costner takes the screen, the pace drops off dramatically. Costner gives a rather bland performance as Hammer, despite some moments where he gets to voice his morality. At times, Hammer feels like Costner’s Elliott Ness character being pulled back into the game, assuming that Ness kept killing for another thirty years after The Untouchables.
In that sense, it becomes an interesting performance through the evocation of another role. However, Costner has been slammed in the past for sleepwalking through movies. At times, you feel that issue creeping into The Highwaymen. Regardless of which side of the Costner argument you take, it is clear that he needs to be surrounded by big characters to make that performance style work.
To help with that very problem, Harrelson does everything he can to liven up the film. He’s the spark plug that adds humor and zaniness to the movie time and time again. Whether he’s playing cards with the guys, walking through a crime scene, or interrogating civilians at a bar, he’s constantly more interesting than those who occupy the screen with him. While the story dictates that Gault was not the lead, he makes for a far more interesting character. This role won’t be considered a top-tier Harrelson performance, but it is needed for The Highwaymen to function.
The chase becomes a slow burn journey through the South, with Harrelson and Costner failing to nab the notorious bandits on multiple occasions. Pacing issues fall on director John Lee Hancock, whose previous films The Founder and The Blind Side have had similar issues. Hancock’s pace accidentally creates issues with Costner’s performance by extending scenes with his already molasses-like line readings. With a two hours and twelve-minute runtime, we just needed more excitement. After all, the story follows lawmen chasing Bonnie & Clyde. Instead, we get elongated discussions on growing old and morality. They can be interesting, but many of these conversations could have taken half the time. At two hours, or even an hour and forty-five minutes, The Highwaymen would have been far more compelling.
While the slow pace is an issue, Hancock does wonders with recreating the period. You can feel the grime and desperation that has stuck to the working men of the South. Great costuming, subtle makeup and disheveled production design places the audience in 1930s rural Texas. The recreations of the rifles and weapons are also well made, appearing authentic to laymen.
However, the best thing Hancock brings to the table is a staging of the violent acts in question. Whenever Bonnie & Clyde, or their gang, perpetrate an act of violence, we see the grisly aftermath. This version never gets as bloody as the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde, but it does show the blood. This allows Costner and Harrelson to usurp the traditional anti-hero narrative given to the bank robbers, and recast them as the violent criminals they were.
The Highwaymen is a mostly straightforward story of lawmen trying to do right in the world. With a good performance from Harrelson and a tired performance from Costner, it does have some standout moments. Hancock does a great job with the technical aspects of the film. However, the pacing is too slow and becomes a disservice to the story. It makes The Highwaymen feel too self-serious, and in the process, lets down the film.
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The Highwaymen is in select theaters nationwide. Netflix will begin streaming the film on March 29, 2019.
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