The Netflix original The Highwaymen, from director John Lee Hancock (The Founder, The Blindside), tells the “untold true story” of the men responsible for hunting, and killing, notorious gangsters Bonnie and Clyde. At the helm of this fugitive hunt are Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), washed up gunslingers contracted by the state of Texas to hunt down the famed killers.
The film declines to abide by the usual route of telling this tale from the killers’ perspective in favor of lesser known story of the men hunting them. On paper, this is a novel idea that could give new legs to a story that’s been told countless times before, but the film only ever scratches the surface of the introspective moralities facing these characters.
Given the opportunity to tell a unique story, The Highwaymen never commits to any of the ideas it thinly presents. Instead of grappling with the morality of a state-sanctioned murder that spits in the face of the American justice system, the film reduces this potentially interesting angle to petty squabbling between the leads. The film also periodically addresses Bonnie and Clyde’s Robin Hood esque public perception, but even here the film fails to expound upon that past a surface level glance.
And herein lies my biggest fault with the film; the reality is that the story of the men who hunted Bonnie and Clyde isn’t that interesting. At no fault of its stars, their characters are generic, trope-heavy, hard-drinking, washed up gunslingers. Aside from periodically recounting their violent and tumultuous pasts, we never really get to know these characters past their hard exteriors or history lecture expositions.
It feels like a tremendous waste of two fantastic actors whose body of work precedes them. Despite their respective talents, Harrelson’s pension for comedic relief and Costner’s reserved stoicism, the performances fall flat due to what they’re given to work with. The focus so rarely stays fixed on any one particular story beat for more than a few minutes, before it’s back to montages of Harrelson and Costner driving across the barren lands of the West. While Harrelson and Costner are incredibly underutilized, they are the only aspect of the film that keeps its mediocrity afloat. Without them, this would be completely forgettable.
My faults with The Highwaymen don’t simply equate to it being a poor film, but rather the fact that it quickly becomes apparent how insultingly average the whole thing is. Its story and character beats are incredibly predictable, yet it never takes any risks which make its structure feel far too safe. To John Lee Hancock’s credit, his ability to string along a story, no matter how uninspired, might be a skill in of itself. The structure of the film never falters, it’s just that it never manages to be entertaining or informative.
While there are points where the film drags, it is never overtly grueling, no matter how close it may come to being at times. The result is a frustrating watch that frequently seems to be just on the cusp of introducing a fresh or entertaining take on the subject matter, but veers away at the last second. Given the historical nature of the Bonnie and Clyde case, you would expect the film to be a combination of a detective story and pulpy Tommy gun shoots out, and even here the film fails to capitalize. The entire thing is building up to a known culminating event yet this build up never has any memorable moments.
It’s a shame that given the content mill nature of streaming services, we can only expect an influx of films such as The Highwaymen. These ultimately serve little purpose other than “it’s Friday, and we need a big release.” The precedent that films such as this set is that streaming services place more emphasis on getting the most prominent names to star in their original content, rather than taking risks on newer stories with lesser known actors. Given its 50 million dollar budget, I can’t help but wonder how that could have been better spent taking risks on lesser known, but more inspiring stories than this. It ultimately boils down to films like The Highwaymen, that are by no means terrible, but you can’t help but walk away feeling like your time could have been better spent.
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The Highwaymen attempts to shed new light on the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde with an untold historical lens that ultimately fails to provide any new meaningful insight or entertainment into this otherwise overtly film.
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