Another Look: The Highwaymen vs. Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde – 1967

Director Arthur Penn
Screenplay David Newman & Robert Benton
Starring Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Denver Pyle

The Highwaymen – 2019

Director John Lee Hancock
Screenplay John Fusco
Starring Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson, Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, Kim Dickens, Thomas Mann, William Sadler

The name of Frank Hamer my not ever be completely lost to history, but from 1967 to now, the person most of us thought of is Denver Pyle’s somber and humiliated lawman caught and humiliated early in Arthur Penn’s renowned film. The remaining Hamer family sued and settled out of court after the film had become a hit. They weren’t real happy with the idea that their patriarch would stay behind blind cover and slaughtered two people in a car.

Kevin Costner received the script for The Highwaymen over a decade ago after the roles of Hamer and his counterpart Maney Gault were not taken up by Paul Newman and Robert Redford. It formally became a go in June 2017. The film drives down a different path than Bonnie and Clyde, a film that is seen as groundbreaking delve into the new Hollywood that began to flourish in the 1970’s.

The Warren Beatty film has received a gentle critical wind in the ensuing years, remembered more for its groundbreaking violence than for any of the many nominated performances. In retrospect, its not a bad film, but it’s not a classic, either. The main thing it lacks is a cohesive story that’s not real accurate with any amount of character development.

We see some highlights of the real story:

  • Bonnie (Dunaway) is smitten by Clyde’s (Beatty) look and his car and they take off, robbing and causing mayhem.
  • Bonnie is a bit sadistic.
  • Barrow battles impotence, which is a toned down version of his effeminate nature of lore.
  • The H. D. Darby / Sophie Stone kidnapping
  • They meet up with Buck (Hackman) and his wife (Parsons).
  • They take a series of pictures together reminiscent of the ones we all know from legend.
  • Buck and Blanche Barrow are injured in a gunfight, which is eventually mortal for Buck.
  • Hamer sets the couple up for their famous ambush.

Much of the rest of the film is such a blur that one gets the feeling it all could have taken place in about a month instead of the almost 3 years in real life. There is a combined character, and many other events like the prison break have been condensed from the actual history. Why they made Hamer pose for the indulgent and embarrassing picture is anyone’s guess.

Time has shaken off the cobwebs and shown the film is more the right film at the right time, rather than one that has a ton of artistic merit. The violent wave that the film film is credited with starting is the foremost thing it has going for it now. Hackman is the one great actor that came out of the group. The rest are good, but they never had 1/4 the career of the career he had combined. Yes, I know there are some good actors there.

The wave of esteem for this film is reminiscent of, say, Avatar. How else can one explain Michael J. Pollard’s nomination? Even Hackman has had many better roles. Every once in a while a film will come along and capture the media with its success and then it rightly fades when we see it for what it is and what it is not. This is one of those films.

(***1/2 out of *****)

The Highwaymen sets out to right the things that have been wronged. Hamer (Costner) is a fading, but serious lawman who’s been semi-retired with his partner Gault (Harrelson). He carries 17 bullets inside of him. They symbolize the cover he’s given in enforcing the law lo these many years.

The film starts with Governor “Ma” Ferguson hiring Hamer after they organize a prison breakout. Hamer attempts to work out the kinks in his shooting. Realizing he’s got a ways to go, he talks his old partner Gault into coming along.

Gault has some demons he’s drowned in booze, but Hamer’s moral compass is his guide too. He is compelled to follow what seems a doomed mission.

There are other groups after the gang, who are armed completely to the gills. Hamer and Gault have the back of their car filled with guns. The film is not filled with shootouts, nor do we see much of Bonnie and Clyde. They seem more like ghosts, one step and sometimes 400 miles ahead.

We see their actions, but only from a distance. And it doesn’t make it seem any less menacing. If anything, the film goes some way to revel Bonnie as a cold blooded killer as much as the rest of the gang.

The majority of the film shows Gault and Hamer doing the yeoman’s work of investigating while on the road. We get to see more than a few moments of Costner as aging man of action. He does this more believably, if less entertainingly than Eastwood.

This film is not meant to supplant Bonnie and Clyde. Even so , it works much better as a cohesive story. Costner has never been the actor with a ton of range. Every role he’s taken after Dances With Wolves has seemed to be a variation of The Bodyguard. The shtick works here and is complimented by Harrelson’s only slightly more complicated Gault.

The real winner of The Highwaymen is the story. We have a clear destination even as they follow a winding path towards the bad end. If it’s not filled with a ton of flash, there is a great amount of grist to the story. This one is meat and potatoes, with a small side of parsley.

The story takes place in a shorter period of time, but you feel that time progress logically. The road feels long, but the expositional dialogue feels natural, even if they aren’t breaking new ground.

Sadler gives a poignant performance in his one scene with Cosnter, elevating both of the actors. Harrelson is on another level right now. He feels destined for a nomination somewhere down the road.

This is a good film. There will be no awards this time. It will not be given its due, even if it completely the better film. The moments that vary from the true events are minimal, and they don’t detract from the feeling that we may have seen just a little bit of history.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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