The Highwaymen

Posted on March 21, 2019 at 5:12 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some strong violence and bloody images
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and alcohol abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Extended bloody violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 22, 2019

Copyright Netflix 2019
The titles say it all. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, robbed banks, stores, and gas stations, masterminded a prison escape, killed police officers and civilians, all while they were still in their 20’s, until they were gunned down by law enforcement. They were populist celebrities of their time and have been glamorized in movies, most notably the Arthur Penn film “Bonnie and Clyde,” starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. They get their names in the title, but for the story of the men in law enforcement who tracked them down, a generic term will do.

“The Highwaymen” is the un-glamorous story of former Texas Rangers called back into service who persevere despite unreliable politicians, incompetent federal agents, and a population, including criminals and Depression-era fan who were on the side of anyone who was not on the side of the banks. The story of the lovers who defied the rules created by the rich and powerful and shared cheeky photos of themselves holding guns was much more appealing than the idea of bringing them to justice.

Director John Lee Hancock “The Blind Side” and writer John Fusco (“Young Guns,” “The Shack”), are, like the story’s lead characters, disgusted with those who think that Bonnie and Clyde are more appealing than the men who caught and killed them, though that does not prevent them from altering some of the facts themselves.

The focus here is on the two old pros, Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson). In the Penn film, the Hamer character was portrayed as hapless in comparison to the people he was tracking, initially captured by them (which never really happened). In this version, we only catch brief glimpses of the notorious duo. It is clear who we are supposed to respect and root for.

Texas governor Ma Ferguson (a deliciously bellicose Kathy Bates) has shut down the Texas Rangers in favor of a more modern form of law enforcement. But when it comes to the crime spree of Bonnie and Clyde, she recognizes that she doesn’t need modern and she doesn’t want law enforcement. She wants them dead. And so she has someone contact Hamer, now a successful private investigator living comfortably with his wife (Kim Dickens). And Hamer contacts Gault, living in near-poverty with his daughter trying to stay off the booze.

The pace of the film is slow and deliberate because what these men are doing is slow and deliberate. The filmmaking is straightforward but thoughtful. A scene where Hamer and Gault search what turns out to be an empty house is especially skillful, with the lawmen framed in a dresser-top mirror. The images of Depression-era life, the campout of what in those days were called hoboes, the saucy red shoe that is all we see of Bonnie in her first appearance, the stop to buy guns and the boys who help Hamer with some secret target practice, the face of Hamer’s wife (an excellent Kim Dickens) as she says goodbye — all reward the patient viewer.

Costner and Harrelson have the kind of easy chemistry that suits their characters, men who have seen too much and done too much. They know they have done wrong in the cause of right, but they also know that their wrongs kept people safe. They know that they will not be appreciated by the politicians who will claim credit for their successes and blame them for mistakes made by others, or by the people who thought of Bonnie and Clyde as a romantic fantasy of living fast, dying young, and leaving a good-looking corpse, if you don’t count the bullet holes. But that knowledge will not, as anything else can not, turn them away from what they see is their duty. This movie does what they were too proud to do themselves, tell their story and let us learn from it.

Parents should know that this is a crime and law enforcement story with extended peril and violence. Characters are injured and killed and there are some graphic and disturbing images. The film also has some sexual references, some potty humor, alcohol and alcoholism, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Hamer and Gault take the job? Why did Clyde’s father want to talk to Hammer? Why did so many people root for Bonnie and Clyde?

If you like this, try: “The Untouchables” and “Bonnie and Clyde”

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Bonnie and Clyde, Roger Ebert, and Pauline Kael

Posted on August 13, 2017 at 3:37 pm

Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” turns 50 this week. Rogerebert.com critics pay tribute, fitting as the film was one of Roger Ebert’s favorites and his review of the film helped to make his reputation as a critic of seriousness, insight, and influence. He wisely and accurately wrote at the time that the film was “a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance” and predicted “years from now it is quite possible that ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ will be seen as the definitive film of the 1960s.” Later, with some perspective, he included it as one of his “Great Films” and wrote, “It was a film in which all of the unlikely pieces were assembled at the right time. And more than anything else, it was a masterpiece of tone, in which the actors and filmmakers were all in sync as they moved the material back and forth between comedy and tragedy.”

Copyright Warner Brothers 1967

At Flavorwire, Jason Bailey writes about Pauline Kael’s review, which he says was “as revolutionary to the craft of film criticism as Bonnie and Clyde was to the craft of film.”

“Bonnie and Clyde is the most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate,” she wrote. “The audience is alive to it. Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: with how we came to love them and to feel they were ours—not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours.” And with that, she’s off and running, not only drawing us in with the breathless urgency of her praise, but vibing on what would become one of her signature preoccupations: the wild notion that this commoner’s entertainment could also be considered art, even when functioning outside the rigid confines of the “art film.”

She tackles this idea sideways, in considering and refuting the key argument of the film’s detractors (chief among them, Crowther at the Times): its violence. “To ask why people react so angrily to the best movies and have so little negative reaction to poor ones is to imply that they are so unused to the experience of art in movies that they fight it,” she surmises, and expands upon that notion thus:

Though we may dismiss the attacks with “What good movie doesn’t give some offense?,” the fact that it is generally only good movies that provoke attacks by many people suggests that the innocuousness of most of our movies is accepted with such complacence that when an American movie reaches people, when it makes them react, some of them think there must be something the matter with it—perhaps a law should be passed against it.

These were fairly radical notions at the time (for an American critic, anyway), that a popular art form like film should not only be provocative, but was better for it – and at the very least, it was a radical idea for the tony pages of the New Yorker. But the film’s volatile relationship with its audience, how it turns our expectations and reactions (to violence, to sexuality, and especially to humor) back on its viewers, make for both the essay’s most compelling ideas, and its most astonishing writing.

Also of interest: Variety’s Steven Gaydos debunks the myth that Kael’s review saved the film from studio neglect.

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