The Highwaymen – Costner and Harrelson on the Big Screen

This is a great film, the backdrop of which illustrates the transition from cowboys on horses to lawmen in cars, an era also described well in All the Pretty Horses.
The main plot point of The Highwaymen is based on the true story of two Texas Rangers brought out of retirement to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde. A theme also explored is the effect of killing, whether under the color of law or as an outlaw.
Kevin Costner is no stranger to playing the square-jawed and upright lawman. He plays Frank Hamer. Woody Harrelson is Maney Gault, Hamer’s once and former partner. Intriguingly, Harrelson once played a modern day Clyde Barrow, as one half of the couple in Natural Born Killers.
Hamer and Gault start out creaky, but as they get into the hunt their posture improves and they are more assured in their movements. Their confidence strengthens as well, despite apparent superior competition from the Feds. Hoover’s G-Men have planes, hundreds of men and new-fangled wiretaps.

But Hamer and Gault rely on their instincts, traversing Texas and eventually crossing state lines and moving past their jurisdiction.
Seeing the film on the big screen affords the benefit of enjoying the expansive horizons, lovingly shot by cinematographer John Schwartzman. We shall see how well that translates to delivery via Netflix. Also especially effective is Thomas Newman’s score, which perfectly captures the rustic setting of the chase. His combination of acoustic strings and slide guitars evokes the flatlands across which the pair track the celebrity killers.
The look of the film is wonderful, from the attire (great Fedoras) to the cars with sideboards and mostly the Depression era rural towns. The ramshackle filling stations and migrant camps subtly explain why Bonnie and Clyde were seen as Robin Hoods. Overlooked by the tens of thousands of mourners who attended their funerals was the ruthless way they killed policemen.
That dichotomy deeply irked our heroes, each killing by Bonnie and Clyde affirming their resolve to bring down the killers. In a line sadly still relevant today, Gault disgustedly crumples a newspaper and mutters “it used to be you had to have talent to get into the newspaper, now all you have to do is kill someone.”
The film of course is a corrective mirror to Arthur Penn’s excellent Bonnie and Clyde from 1967, which revived the eponymous duo’s celebrity…which had been mostly dormant for three decades. Director John Lee Hancock does a great job with the material; The Highwaymen script by John Fusco is well-paced, especially given the often tedious nature of the actual job faced by our two leads. (Hancock and Costner worked together earlier; the former wrote the script for A Perfect World in which escaped convict Costner is pursued by Texas Ranger Clint Eastwood).
Hancock is said to have strived for authenticity, even staging the non-surprise ending at the exact spot in Louisiana where the actual event transpired in 1934.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.