Sam Burnham, Curator
I want to take a closer look at some of the themes in this film. There’s a lot going on here and I’d like to examine it in light of the earlier commentary on Hell or High Water.
Again we see Texas Rangers chasing down bank robbers. Again we see, on a much larger scale this time, an affinity for the outlaws from the general public. The evil banks are getting theirs and there is a cult of personality, a wild fandom that has grown out of the gratitude the people have for what they believe is vengeance, a reckoning even.
Looking at one of the Rangers, Maney Gault, played by Woddy Harrelson, we see a man who is struggling with events that haunt him. These events date back to the earliest days in his career when he and his partner, Frank Hamer, played by Costner, raided an encampment of Mexican bandits, killing dozens, including a young boy. The memories drive his convictions as he expresses adamantly that how they conduct themselves should reflect that they are better than the monsters they seek.
A pivotal scene is when Hamer confronts Clyde Barrow’s father, Henry, played by William Sadler. The two discuss how Clyde evolved from a “good kid” to a murderous outlaw and, in turn, how Hamer became a Texas Ranger and eventually a highwayman on a special assignment to take down Bonnie and Clyde. Like any father would, Barrow points to the good in his son. He wants Hamer to know this wasn’t how his boy was raised or who he really was. They discuss the idea of “one turn on the trail,” the idea that one decision can lead to a series of decisions that can change the course of a life. While Barrow is defending his son, he also stresses to Hamer that the only way this rampage ends is with Clyde’s death. He’s almost weeping as he asks Hamer to end it quickly. A father has already lost his son. What must come will bring an odd relief to his family.
That end comes as Gault and Hamer, with the help of a Dallas deputy and a Louisiana sheriff and deputy, set an elaborate trap for Bonnie and Clyde. The moment they spring that trap is the first real glimpse you get of the couple. They’re young, attractive, well dressed. They don’t look like soulless monsters. They look like two kids with their whole lives ahead of them. That is where you feel that tug at your heart as the barrage of gunfire erupts and their youthful bodies are obliterated by hundreds of bullets. It is all so senseless and yet, there was no other way their violent rampage was ever going to end.
What we should take take away from this film is a true and complete respect for and commitment to the sanctity of human life.
Bonnie and Clyde were revered for what they did because everyday folks cheapened the lives of bankers. Hamer and Gault were each tormented in their own ways for their taking of human life. Bonnie and Clyde found their own unnecessary destruction through their disregard for human life. Viewers are left to ponder the value of human life as two beautiful yet sinister people are blown to smithereens.
If we value human life, we value all human life. And that can seem like a paradox at times. When Hamer and Gault stormed the lair of the bandits and killed them, it ended a terrible threat to human life. But it also ended human lives. When they killed Bonnie and Clyde, it ended the threat of violence to banks, law enforcement, and even average people, but it also cost the lives of two human beings.
In the end the deaths were beneficial for the safety of others. But that doesn’t make the loss of life something to celebrate. In the case of Bonnie and Clyde, their souls died long before their bodies were killed. What really could have come from their lives? What of the grief of their families? What of missed opportunities? What of wasted lives? In short, killing them was necessary. It was the only way to save lives but their deaths were no less tragic for it.
Valuing himan life does not mean never killing. It means that sometimes killing is the only way to save life. It means being willing to kill to save lives. But it also means that killing, no matter how necessary, is never good. There’s a toll that killing takes on the human psyche. There’s a cost for all involved.
The best option is to value human life and prevent the death of the soul that builds monsters like Bonnie and Clyde. This means appropriate methods of incarceration and rehabilitation. This means education and mentoring. It means loving life first and applying appropriate and necessary justice while maintaining our own souls and not becoming the monsters we fight.
The Highwaymen offers many lessons in life , love, mercy, and justice. We’d be wise, as individuals and a society, to take these lessons, learn from them, and apply them.
Sam Burnham, Curator
The Highwaymen provides a timely contrast for the earlier reviewed film Hell or High Water. This film is set in and around Texas in 1934 during the violent rampage that was Bonnie & Clyde. It’s timely as Bonnie and Clyde found a level of stardom based on the perception they were “just robbing banks” and somehow sticking it to the rich who were sucking the life out of the poor. It was the same sentiment we saw for Tanner and Toby Howard in Hell or High Water. The biggest difference is that Bonnie and Clyde were murderous thugs who were just as capable of killing any of their adoring fans as they were a banker.
First off a disclosure. Kevin Costner has been one of my favorites dating back to The Untouchables and Field of Dreams. I’ve stuck with him when his acting was great and also through at least a few times he remained himself rather than truly taking on his character. In this instance he morphed into Frank Hamer seamlessly. It was some of his best acting.
On the other hand, Woody Harrelson has not always been one of my favorites. His portrayal on Maney Gault, however, is flawless. What he gives viewers is a man deeply troubled by experiences earlier in his career who is seeking to regain part of his humanity. This role has me considering Harrelson’s earlier roles and realizing that it wasn’t him that I disliked so much as it was the characters he sold so well. What I needed was a character I could connect with. Harrelson does that with Gault.
The film’s treatment of Bonnie and Clyde is also unique. They are key to the plot, they are the driving force or the narrative but they are almost ghosts. The roles could have been played by unpaid extras. Even revealing their faces is kept to instances when it is absolutely necessary for the plot. This approach keeps the film from glorifying them while adding to the mystery. When you do see them it compounds the tragedy of it all. You see two young lives that could have, should have, turned out differently. It is a brilliant technique.
Like Hell or High Water, this film accurately shows poverty in The South. In this case it is under the debilitating conditions of The Great Depression. But much of it is the struggle of the post-war South. It’s a struggle you can still find in parts of The South today, even if in a lesser form.
If you take these pieces, combine them with a beautiful score that plays on your emotions to build suspense, fear, frustration, and occasionally even a little humor, you make quite a film. Then there are the costumes and the delightful automobiles, all the little extras that immerse you into the story.
This is yet another Netflix film that should make a splash come awards season. In addition to cinematography, screenplay, score, and others, i expect to see acting nominations for Costner and especially Harrelson.
I will probably watch this one again. I wholeheartedly recommend it. Expect a commentary to follow.
Sam Burnham, Curator
My reviews aren’t always timely. This one is no exception. This review goes back to a 2016 release that escaped my radar then but I came across a clip from it a while back and then found the film on Netflix. After viewing it, I think it is important to not only review it but also to follow up with a commentary as I’ve done before.
The cast of Hell or High Water led by Jeff Bridges, using his gravely cowboy voice rather than his more recognized “Dude” voice. Bridges plays an aging Texas Ranger on the trail of bank robbers . His partner is played by Gil Birmingham, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors.
The setting is West Texas but it could just as easily have been in rural areas of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, or Mississippi. There is a painfully accurate portrayal of poverty in rural America. Rather than showing poverty as poor people in a comfortable home but with few possessions, poverty is shown as true economic insecurity. Widespread poverty is contrasted against the wealth of Big Oil and Texas Midlands Bank, the regional bank that plays the roles of both victim and villain.
Texas Midlands takes the brunt of the vengeance within the plot but a broad definition of predatory lending is laid out before viewers to see the sentiment of the common people of West Texas who are consistently reluctant to help rangers investigate the string of bank robberies that are hammering Texas Midlands Bank branches.Their reluctance is due to their hatred for the bank and the practices that have cost so many so much.
On the flip side of the plot we learn of the impact these lending practices has had on the two brothers who are pulling off the robberies one by one. The planning and execution of the robberies serve a particular goal. They also kept the investigators confused. Without giving out spoilers, two robbers and two rangers spin and weave plot twists into a thrilling story, a story with many small messages that combine to make a rousing narrative of Agrarianism, decentralization, and the need for family and community.
But I don’t want to muddy up this review with two much analysis. That’ll be the next story. For now let me say this is a great movie. It has poignant messages we need to consider, action to keep you engaged, and some really good acting. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen.
And now I’m off to break down those messages...
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire