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.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire