Netflix’s The Highwaymen stars Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as Texas Rangers chasing Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Despite big name leads and an all-time premise, the John Lee Hancock film is unfortunately a stale depiction of the hunt for the most romanticized crime duo in American history.
The film begins in 1934, two years into Bonnie and Clyde’s rampage that claimed lives of police officers and civilians. Costner and Harrelson’s characters enter as Texas Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) is one year removed from discharging the Texas Rangers from their duties. The enigmatic battle ax agrees to enlist former Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) to catch Barrow’s gang. To aid his mission, Hamer enlists fellow ex-Ranger Benjamin Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson).
The Highwaymen Cast
The pairing of Costner and Harrelson is where The Highwaymen meets its demise. The combination lacks the chemistry needed for such a film to work. Kevin Costner has limited range. He usually succeeds in films that cast him in a certain character type – cowboys, baseball players, and law men.
His track record does not translate to this work. Costner never develops a presence because so much of his investigation is instinctive. He spends much of The Highwaymen growling and being unapproachable. He merely exists as a gritty, above-reproach Texas Ranger without any dimension.
The opposite can be said of his partner – Woody Harrelson. Harrelson has made a career playing slight variations of an amorphous persona: bartender, bowler, baller, cop, and youth combat mentor. He works the room without beating up anyone. His Depression-era bad luck and alcoholism provide a far more interesting character than Costner’s version of a Texas Ranger as Christian Bale’s Batman.
Despite a strong supporting cast that includes Bates, William Sadler, and Kim Dickens, The Highwaymen does not develop a strong enough story or characters to elevate the product from Netflix content to compelling film. This includes the lack of action onscreen. Aside from a couple of brutal scenes, the film does not make the most of its R-Rating. Instead, The Highwaymen is actually tame when it comes to capitalizing on the edge that the rating allows.
Much like John Lee Hancock’s The Blind Side, The Highwaymen features odd musical interludes. While the Thomas Newman score offers enjoyable pieces that are reminiscent of Deadwood, their overuse in the film distracts from, rather than increases the drama in the film.
One thing The Highwaymen does well is place Bonnie and Clyde in historical context. The film does not excuse their violence, but explains how the Great Depression allowed a Robin Hood-style myth to mask the reality of their crime spree. In addition to Harrelson’s hard times, the story ventures through camps and details popular outrage against banks victimized by the Barrow Gang.
Netflix’s Highwaymen – Final Say
Unfortunately, the movie is a missed opportunity for an established director and two well-traveled actors. Netflix granted a limited theatrical release to The Highwaymen, but it is really a mediocre made-for-TV movie without any big screen hooks to justify a trip to the theaters.