The Highwaymen Review: Bonnie & Clyde Cop Chase Runs Out of Gas


Netflix’s latest is a Boomer-era fantasy that doesn’t quite get us to root for the cops that chased down Bonnie & Clyde.


I’m not a total booze expert, but Bonnie and Clyde seems to me like a single-malt scotch. It’s smooth, pretty classy, a little crass, and just might wreck your tongue if you don’t let it breathe. It’s bitter to this day—even more so when you think of the real duo’s thousands of fans—and 85 years after their death comes Netflix’s The Highwaymen. John Lee Hancock’s (The Blind Side, The Founder) latest tells the true story of a different pair: the two men that ended the crime spree. But while the ne’er-do-wells’ film goes down like sharp whisky, this one is more like Schlitz. That would be okay normally, but this rack just feels like seltzer water and sleeping pills.

Some of this makes sense in theory, and the film has little interest in the criminals or their ferocity. It sets its sights on the cyclicality of violence if anything, but you’d have to sift through a whole lot of diluted filler before finding anything cogent. The film starts off with Texas Governor Miriam Ferguson (Kathy Bates) holding a meeting to organize the criminals’ capture. She soon settles on an ex-Ranger named Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner). But he can’t do it alone, and through several faults of John Fusco’s (The Shack) script comes the introduction of his partner, Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson). Well, he used to be Hamer’s partner. Now he’s an unemployed husband and father, and it’s upon his introduction that starts bowing to several genre conventions.

The Highwaymen is more of a buddy cop movie than the western you might expect, and while that could make for an engaging portmanteau, the film is too scrubbed clean to work. Hamer is the straight man; Gault is the jokier foil. Their respective wives (Kim Dickens and Kaley Wheless) are living, breathing wallpaper who exist for the sake of quick character exposition, and each child that gets screen time feels two steps away from going, “Willikers, Mr. Ranger!” These faux-halcyon touches enslave the first half of The Highwaymen’s 132 minutes. The film lacks purpose until it posits itself as a meditation on ethics and violence, yet its social commentary is too little, too late.

The Highwaymen swims in possibilities only to drown in a shallow pool of blood.

But let’s be clear: Fusco isn’t the only talent here who’s completely mismatched with this material. Hancock coasts on a contrived and ultimately jarring tone without establishing tension. Whether a scene is comical or dramatic, they’re often written and directed without much spatial awareness or thematic progression. Hancock and cinematographer John Schwartzman (Jurassic World, A Simple Favor) shoot the picture with flat, digital photography that fails to convince of this time and place.

These issues make the film feel inert, but then there are more curious issues such as the editing, swinging madly between calm and intense. Part of me wondered if the filmmakers were trying to play with our memories of Arthur Penn’s film, and while this could have made for a clever subversion of audience expectations, it doesn’t line up with Fusco’s script. The Highwaymen wants to plumb its themes’ moral ambiguity, but it wants to have a cut-and-dry ending even more. This clash in attitude begs the question: everyone involved here knew the Hays Code isn’t around anymore, right?

Because no matter how Fusco and Hancock look at it, our real-life heroes used violence to stop violence. They fought fire with fire and they—despite their ethics and the ethics of the law—had to be as “bad” as the bad guys on that fateful day on the side of the road. Did they do the right thing? Well, it wouldn’t seem to matter, since Bonnie and Clyde still got tons of adoration. This could make for some salient social commentary, but The Highwaymen swims in possibilities only to drown in a shallow pool of blood.

The Highwaymen Trailer
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Matt Cipolla

Writer and film critic for hire who has worked with WGN Radio, Bright Wall/Dark Room, RogerEbert.com, The Film Stage, and more. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff."

  1. Mark Kringle says:

    Not impressed eh? I rather liked it. I think the portrayals of country life were spot on. There’s mud on the road and on your boots but not Bonni’s fancy shoes. Are the people’s lines trite? Well, welcome to the country. Kathy Bates shines as “the Reform Candidate ” whose going to clean up the police, only to hire a couple assasins when things don’t work out.

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