In 1934, two retired Texas Rangers are licensed to pursue, apprehend, or kill Bonnie and Clyde as they paved a path in robbery and blood across Texas and neighboring states.
“I had to come, although I don’t exactly know why,” Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) tells Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner), as the two reflect on their pursuit of the notorious (and sometimes, celebrated) criminals, Bonnie Parker (Emily Brobst) and Clyde Barrow (Edward Bossert).
In Netflix’s version of this real-life pursuit, Hamer and Gault are clearly over the hill, struggling with life after work and the ghosts of the men they pursued as Texas Rangers. When the head of prisons (John Carroll Lynch) convinces the first female governor of Texas, Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates), to hire them, Hamer and Gault begin to chase the Barrow gang, even as federal authorities devote significantly more resources than the two can muster.
Written by John Fusco (Young Guns I & II, Hidalgo, Thunderheart, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron) and directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Rookie, Saving Mr. Banks, The Founder), the film has the production level of a theatrical release, which it did receive in limited fashion. On Netflix, anyone can see these A-list actors and navigate the story of a real-life cops-and-robbers story. But the depth of Hamer and Gault provides significantly more material for audiences to consider in a riveting cat-and-mouse tale that is part buddy road trip, and part criminal investigation, with funny, touching, and tense moments sprinkled throughout.
In several conversations, Gault pushes Hamer on whether what they’ve done in the past, and what they’ll need to do to Bonnie and Clyde, is justified; whether they had the right to be the executioners of criminals. Gault’s own memories of those he’s killed legally still haunt him—and account for his drinking and despondence. While Hamer appears less guilt-ridden, his interaction with Barrow’s father details the path he took, initially intended to be a pastor, into the role of lawman and executioner when his own youth was stripped away by an act of violence. What led one man to the law drove another to crime, but both of them became creatures of violence on opposite sides of the law.
An additional viewpoint allows us to see the difference between the lawman’s point of view and the general populace’s in terms of Bonnie and Clyde, where the first sees all of the pain caused by the two and the second romanticizes the notion of stealing from banks (perceived as causing the Great Depression). While people on both sides glorify the outcomes, the audience is left with this clear realization: Hamer and Gault stood in the gap, protecting their community, and they alone bear the scars emotionally of the violence they had done.
The Dove Take:
The Highwaymen is not approved for all audiences based on language, but discerning audiences will find an interesting discussion of the law, justice, violence, and the impact of those on the paths we take in life.