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The Unsung ‘Highwaymen’

Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, came out in 1967, before I was born. Riding the wave of sixties counterculture, the film pushed the envelope, particularly by challenging taboos about sexuality and by redefining the boundaries of just how graphic displays of violence were allowed to be in movies. It was critically acclaimed and nominated for ten Academy Awards. I don’t remember exactly when I saw it for the first time, but it had to be sometime in the nineties. And I remember the movie still carrying along with it the easy-to-buy, perpetuated, popular myth of a glamorous rock star couple.

Mind you, the film was depicting real people and real events that had existed and occurred six decades prior to my experience of watching it. And still, this duo, whose behavior, under any thoughtful examination, could only be classified as sociopathic, was painted in a way that made you root for them. You knew going in that their gruesome fate was sealed – after all, this wasn’t fiction, this was history – and you still felt impelled to take their side. Somehow, that thirties romantic fable of unswerving rebellion taken to a suicidal extreme had survived all the way to the nineties. It was still in the air then.

Highwaymen is a Netflix original movie about the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, ruthless homicidal criminals on the run, but told from the point of view of the men that killed them in 1934. At the end of the movie, two facts, accompanied by their respective archival footage of events, are thrown at the viewer: “20,000 people attended Bonnie Parker’s funeral service in Dallas” and “Clyde Barrow’s service drew 15,000.”

No one knows what spark, what misinterpreted event, or what embellished third-party recount, helped rumor and hearsay snowball spontaneously into official lore, but Bonnie and Clyde were folk heroes of their day. It was a potent convergence of factors. To begin, there is the love (not just love, dangerous love): by all accounts Bonnie and Clyde were deeply in love. And there’s something inherently fascinating about a love that walks the tightrope and doubles down instead of falling apart. And by siding with Clyde in such a ride-or-die kind of way (even though her role in the enterprise may have been overblown), Bonnie was also challenging traditional gender roles.

Technology was changing, communications and media were evolving, but they weren’t what they are today. Myths and legends, once started, were hard to dispel. The iconic photographs of the pair (with Bonnie holding a gun with a cigar in her mouth), published in newspapers at the time, created the imagery, and overnight the masses ran away with it and never looked back. People were suffering and lived unremarkable lives, and the idea of someone breaking free from the predictable misery of everyday life offered an excitement that was easy to be on the side of from the sidelines.

But, most likely, the main reason why they became celebrities was because people were thrilled with the idea of bank robbers taking a shot at those who hadn’t been crushed by the Great Depression. To average struggling folk, democratic institutions as a whole (police, government, banks) were the enemy, and so gangsters were worshiped as heroes, for their refusal to accept scarcity and hardship as a destiny, and their refusal to go down without a fight. However, theirs (Bonnie and Clyde’s) was a two-year crime spree that claimed at least a dozen lives. And, at the end of the day, right is right and wrong is wrong.

And that seems to be the sober place Highwaymen is coming from. Without overly maligning the murderous couple, this film just takes the bold step of looking at the people Bonnie and Clyde were going up against as real people. So much so, that the two central characters of the movie, Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), the men ultimately responsible for hunting the couple down, are portrayed as over-the-hill, retired law enforcement, that can’t jog or hop a fence.

But beyond serving as an account closer in accuracy to the historical events, as a film, Highwaymen is a finely executed drama. Costner’s acting is, as usual, unassuming and dignified, and Harrelson’s seasoned levity brings contrast to their dynamic, as the two partner up as old-fashioned gunmen commissioned by Texas Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) to put Bonnie and Clyde out of business. And because the law enforcement side of the events (having been overshadowed by tales of legendary larger-than-life rebels) is largely unknown, there’s room in the storytelling to exploit mystery and suspense.

Everybody knows the violent ambush is coming, but the story of the investigative work that went into tracking the violent outlaws’ patterns, and that ultimately made that outcome possible, has never been told in a movie before. Highwaymen manages to blend, in an understated and well-measured way, the detective and thriller subgenres, by incorporating in the storyline Hamer’s fine-tuned intuition, the hits and misses of the pursuit, and the climax of closing in on the gang.

But there is a classical element underlying this confluence of narrative styles that imbues this film with stature. Highwaymen is measured in its pace but it is purposeful: implicit in it, is an ethical theme, which is not overdone or cheaply exploited, that evokes universal civilizational principles. Throughout the movie, there’s an overall somber vibe, a tension conveyed by the heavy consciences of Hamer and Gault. They are older men who have done and seen a lot of killing. They have a sense of how things are going to end, and they are not thrilled about it.

Towards the end of the film, after Bonnie and Clyde are essentially executed, Hamer and Gault are visibly sickened, not only by the carnage they felt they were forced to deliver, but also by the distasteful media circus that ensued. Unlike 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, which celebrated the villains (and turned Hamer into a cartoonish buffoon), Highwaymen is not meant to be celebratory. It aims to ground these false idols in reality, and restore some sanity by paying respect to the lives lost and to those who took on the duty to protect life.

This movie will movingly remind you of that hard-to-abide-by but strangely comforting thing, that visceral thing that is hard to put a name on. We recognize it when we see it, but we’re inept at articulating it. As clumsy as we are with words, if we had to describe it, we probably wouldn’t be able to come up with anything better than “right is right and wrong is wrong.”

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