The morbid fascination with crime and its perpetrators is nothing new, no matter what the current influx of podcasts, TV shows, movies and the associated finger-wagging would have you believe. From public executions and Victorian serials to “Se7en” and “Serial,” we’re fascinated by what makes so-called monsters tick. And few criminal duos have captured the popular imagination like Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, both in their day and to this one. The duo have been immortalized and/or riffed on by countless films and in songs, from Arthur Penn’s unforgettable 1967 film with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, to Merle Haggard and, of course, the sensual ballad cooed by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot.
Director John Lee Hancock’s take, “The Highwaymen,”(which premieres on Netflix on March 29) feels like a rejoinder to our fascination with grisly crimes and the tendency to glamorize villains, given that it’s so careful not to show too much of the dapper bank robber or his equally chic gun moll until the climax. Instead, it lingers on the manic fans that mob their new car and — more emphatically — the bloody, brainy aftermath of their crimes.
But the two past-their-prime former Texas Rangers enlisted by the state of Texas, Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrison), also strike awe and perhaps a twinge of fear in all of the regular folks they meet during their hunt for the infamous Bonnie and Clyde. The two boast quite the historical body count between them — a parallel to Bonnie and Clyde the film never quite acknowledges — and the stories of their heroism follow in their wake (despite the sneers of the slickly attired FBI agents with whom they’re forced to work).
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“The Highwaymen,” then, is too simplistic to be very interesting; Bonnie and Clyde’s fans are mindless creeps eager to grab a grisly memento, and the Rangers are uncomplicatedly the good guys, albeit ones tormented by their respective pasts if not their rather violent presents. (And, though the political landscape of my home state around the turn of the century is somewhat above my pay grade, the atrocities perpetrated by the Texas Rangers that haunt the onscreen characters Hamer and Gault seems to have troubled at least Hamer somewhat less in real life.)
“The Highwaymen” as a film suffers from some significant lags, especially since we all know how this story ends; what’s particularly interesting about the movie — besides Hamer’s inexplicable pet boar — is how it longs for a return to simpler times, when John Wayne was a hero and a man like Frank Hamer could go into a small-town store and buy enough guns to take down a small army without consequences. It’s a time when Hoover and his overhead planes were nothing more than nuisances from a “high-flying sissy,” according to Gault (in a close-up of his angry, booze-reddened face), Bonnie was nothing more than a “little girl” and, when Gault and Hamer find the couple’s empty safe house and examine their clothes, it turns out Clyde isn’t much bigger and that was a realistic indicator of his manliness. (It’s also a time in which police brutality was supposed seen as an appropriate, uncomplicated means to an investigatory end, a somewhat more complicated nostalgia for which to cheer in 2019.)
It seems almost too perfect, story-wise, that Hamer and Gault are brought in against the deepest wishes of Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, the first female governor of Texas — who, by varying accounts, disbanded, fired, defunded or just generally pissed off enough Texas Rangers that they quit. Needless to say, she wasn’t re-elected; but even the movie acknowledges that the Rangers committed various atrocities. (Kathy Bates plays Ferguson, and deserves better — but then she usually does.)
As Hamer and Gault and their small crew close in on Bonnie and Clyde, one character shudders that a reporter asked him to get a photo of the couple after they’d been captured and presumably killed. Can you even imagine? the filmmakers seemingly want us to ask — even as they only show Bonnie and Clyde for the first time after their on-screen ends.
But of course we can: The movie will be streaming on Netflix with “Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” and the upcoming “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” two films by Joe Berlinger that have garnered considerable criticism for sexing up Ted Bundy. And the original “Bonnie and Clyde” was accused of being too violent and too sexy, with its glamorous stars and that scene where Bonnie touches Clyde’s gun for the first time, not to mention the seemingly endless spray of bullets that penetrate their bodies at the climax of the film.
My tastes in true crime aren’t always highbrow: I’m not above a good Investigation Discovery special; while writing, I spent a number of minutes trying to find photos of Bonnie and Clyde’s murder scene; and I write about true crime podcasts every week. But the real meat of the genre (so to speak) is where the lines between good and evil begin to blur; the filmmakers here were seemingly so sure on which side of the line Hamer and Gault stood that they missed any opportunity to make the audience wonder.
And who makes a movie valorizing two violent cops and unironically gives one of them a pet pig?