REVIEW: The Highwaymen (2019)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a review of The Highwaymen — Directed by John Lee Hancock.

Set in 1934, The Highwaymen, from director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side; Saving Mr. Banks), tells the story of two former Texas Rangers, Frank Hamer (played by Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (played by Woody Harrelson) who were hired by Texas governor ‘Ma’ Ferguson (played by Kathy Bates) to stop the notorious criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow by any means necessary.

One of the reasons why I’ve actually been looking forward to this film for quite a while is the fact that this is a buddy road movie starring Woody Harrelson, who certainly isn’t a stranger to that subgenre. The fact that it also stars Kevin Costner, that it’s a quasi-neo-western, and that it’s about the hunt for legendary outlaws ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ all add up to what certainly sounds like a good time at the movies — or on Netflix, as is the case with The Highwaymen. Unfortunately, John Lee Hancock’s latest film is a bit of a dud.

Operating with an entirely unnecessarily long 132-minute runtime, director John Lee Hancock has told a story that is intended to give a ‘true’ account of how two old-timers caught up with the aforementioned legendary pair of outlaws. There is a perfectly entertaining way to make a film like this one interesting and exciting, it is a task that David Mackenzie achieved outstandingly just a few years ago with his neo-western Hell or High Water, which perfectly balanced the focus on outlaws and Texas Rangers, one of whom was in his last days on the job.

However, though the runtime may lead you to expect otherwise, Hancock does not have that same ambition. Though his film does show the old-timers discuss the outlaws’ appeal, Hancock seems entirely disinterested in showing the outlaws’ perspective — Bonnie and Clyde are not seen fully, in-focus until the very end (though we do see them commit crimes and murder people).

The purpose of this seems quite clear, Hancock and writer John Fusco have made a conscious decision not to glorify those who killed several police officers and civilians, even though films before it have had no problem focusing on or merely showing the criminals. In trying to correct the narrative around the chase for Bonnie and Clyde, Hancock, however, has not made a particularly entertaining film.

The Highwaymen‘s runtime is bloated as the film never justifies its unnecessary length. It is an unbalanced film about lawmen of a time long gone that fills its runtime with lots of pretty shots of the open highway, empty fields, dusty roads, and the America of the Great Depression. Director of photography John Schwartzman and production designer Michael Corenblith do fine jobs of introducing us to this time in American history, but the film still fails.

Although it is a film about lawmen chasing outlaws there is absolutely no sense of urgency to find. The Highwaymen is a listless buddy road movie with an ax to grind with celebrity culture and the media. Other than in the stand-off at the very end of the film, it never conjures up much excitement when it should. A car chase scene that eventually takes both vehicles of the road culminates in an unexciting shoot-off that is, frankly, tough to make heads or tails of. The music ramps up, but the old-timers just end up making circles in some field in the middle of nowhere thus bringing blinding brown dust up into the air. Netflix audiences with short attention spans will be bored to tears. Others — those who are more intrigued by the film — might chuckle at the scene in which Kevin Costner empties a gun shop to prepare for the chase.

The film, which also features a, sometimes, overbearing score from Thomas Newman, does boast an appropriately stoic Kevin Costner and a mostly engaging Woody Harrelson playing characters that are unfit for the time they find themselves in. In this conservative film, Kathy Bates, not unlike Kim Dickens, is given a much too small role, even though Bates certainly has some good lines in her — I wanted so much more of them both.

John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen is a listless and slightly resentful revisionist take on an American outlaw legend that tries but fails to glorify the aging and grumpy lawmen that have become little more than a footnote to the legend of Bonnie and Clyde. To paraphrase Kathy Bates’ character, if this film were a fish, I’d throw it back in the water.

5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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