After reading a couple of favorable reviews of The Highwaymen at blogs that I am usually given to trust, I took a flyer on watching the movie – streaming video, of course, on my home computer. I can count the number of movies that I have made a deliberate effort to see in a theater over the last couple of years on the fingers of one hand and … well, wow. Just wow. Kevin Costner isn’t any Kenneth Branagh, or even a John Wayne – but he can act, especially given an intelligent and nuanced script, spare and understated direction, and production values not dependent on flashy special effects. Woody Harrelson may personally be nuttier than squirrel poop – but he also can act. Like Jimmy Stewart did before them – they are better and more interesting playing older, more grizzled characters then they were as smooth-faced young studs. So – The Highwaymen is a retelling of the hunt for and final ambush of gangsters Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, glamorized beyond practically all recognition in the 1968 movie.
There were a good few roving criminal gangs in the 1920ies and 30ies, enabled by the ubiquity of motor cars, resentments of banks in a time of Depression and hardship, and a national media inclined – as they have been practically forever – to make popular folk heroes out of ordinary criminals. The Highwaymen, instead of glorifying a pair of vicious and possibly psychotic losers (who hardly appear at all, save at a distance), follows the two former Texas Rangers, Frank Hamer and Maney Gault on a long and dusty road trip – down empty country roads, through migrant camps and small towns in the Depression-era middle America: a buddy-cop and road-trip movie. Touchingly, the two of them are not quite sure they are up to it. In real life, Hamer and Gault were in their fifties at the time they were tagged to hunt the Barrow gang, survivors of hard and violent times; the old ‘Wild West’ lingered in Texas well into the 20th century. There is some small humor made from the fact that two-way police radios and phone-tapping were a new concept in law enforcement for a pair of guys who first made their bones in the horseback-and-Winchester-rifle days.
What I appreciated most, though – was how flawlessly the scenery where The Highwaymen was filmed backed up the story – yes, that was genuinely Texas; piney woods and dusty plains, with the sky arching overhead. The lonely little gas stations, the streets of Dallas where the Barrows and the Parkers lived, grimy interiors of roadhouses and coffee shops, the migrant camps and tourist cabins – all perfect, right down to the signage and light fixtures. (This was nothing like that horrible Texas Rising mini-series – filmed entirely in Durango, Mexico, in which the concept of scenic authenticity was flung down and danced upon.) The final ambush of Barrow and Parker was actually filmed at the spot where it happened, which must have creeped out the film crew and actors considerably.
All and all – a good two hours spent with interesting people: Hamer had a long and eventful history in law enforcement, which rightfully should be good for another half a dozen movies. In 1939, for instance, he and 49 other retired Texas Rangers offered their services to King George VI, to protect England against the Nazis. (A local Llano author, Elisabeth G. Wolf worked this into a supernatural alt-history fantasy.) Hamer’s wife, Gladys Johnson Sims (seen briefly in the opening scenes of The Highwaymen) should have her own movie, at that: she was at the center of the last great Texas family feud in which the principals personally took up weapons. This feud was kicked into high gear when she shot her ex-husband as he tried to force the issue of custodial visitation with their young daughters. In the town square of Snyder, Texas. In front of witnesses.
Finally, the high quality of The Highwaymen, in acting and directing talent and production values, is additional proof that cinematic creativity has moved on to new venues. Generators with a ready audience – Amazon, Netflix and the like – are creating original, interesting content. Far more interesting content than what’s nommed for the Academy Awards this year; discuss as you wish.