It probably shouldn’t be surprising that mainstream reviews of The Highwaymenhave been tepid, given how hard it pushes back against a film Hollywood has long hailed as one of its greatest works. And there’s no question it indicts the media for heroizing the wrong people. But that would be just another us vs. them movie, and The Highwaymen is smarter than that.
At the 2017 Academy Awards a little over two years ago, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway presented the biggest prize of the evening, the award for best picture. It was the first time the two actors had taken the Oscar stage together, and the pairing was meant to evoke the glamor, beauty, and all-around cool the filmmaking industry associates with their revered 1967 classic, Bonnie and Clyde. It was also exactly the image and impulse director John Lee Hancock’s latest film, The Highwaymen, takes issue with.
Hancock is a professing Christian, and the movies he’s best known for align with the sort of family-friendly entertainment most believers probably think filmmakers of faith should be making. The Blind Side, The Rookie, and Saving Mr. Banks—all are rated G to PG-13, and all have accessible, feel-good themes.
The Highwaymen, now available on Netflix, is different. To start with, it’s rated R for language and a final scene of fairly graphic (though I would argue appropriate) violence. Yet while the profanity is frequent and sometimes unnecessary even for authenticity’s sake, The Highwaymen may be Hancock’s most Biblically grounded film yet. It takes on not just the Depression-era criminal spree of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, but the myth of nobility Hollywood has built around countless criminals.
From the first scenes, Hancock turns both barrels on the so-called legend of Bonnie and Clyde. “Some folks are saying Parker and Barrow are heroes, calling them Robin Hoods,” a reporter calls out to Texas Gov. Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (a characteristically plucky Kathy Bates). Ma fires back, “Did Robin Hood ever shoot a gas station attendant point-blank in the head for four dollars and a tank of gas?”
Since J. Edgar Hoover’s newfangled investigation methods, such as wiretapping, are proving no help in tracking down the killers, Ma turns for help to two retired Texas Rangers. The Rangers, Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, are played with steely efficiency and great chemistry by Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson.