“Speak Softly and Carry a Big stick”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
In one of the scenes in “ The Highwaymen”, killer Clyde Barrow’s father tells Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) to “end it for him and his family” referring to the fact that his son should be killed and be made to pay for his deeds so that he and the family can rest. This scene looks odd as a father makes an unusual request to his son’s designated hitman. But it also paints a grim picture of the world where the film is set. The era of the Great Depression.
“The Highwaymen” stars actors Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson in pivotal roles as Frank Hamer and Maney Gault as former Texas Rangers who are hired by Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) to hunt the notorious killer couple Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The film talks in exhaustive detail about this chase led by Frank and Maney. They are assisted in this hunt by a number of police officials and informers. This essay aims to explore the time in which the film is set and looks at various themes explored in the film. The Highwaymen is produced by Netflix and is currently streaming in India as well.
The legend of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker has served as a reference point for historians for decades now. Both of them represented savagery, barbarism and romance at the same time to a nation which was reeling under The Great Depression between 1929 and 1934. In total the gang killed close to a dozen police officials and a number of civilians. So much so that filmmaker Oliver Stone created “Natural Born Killers” in 1994, a film which in parts was an inspiration of sorts from Bonnie and Clyde. Not to mention the iconic “Bonnie And Clyde “ the 1967 Arthur Penn film which starred Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway and won rave reviews and awards.
In a way both Bonnie and Clyde were celebrated by a certain strata who were facing the brunt of the Depression and joblessness. But the law and order machinery treated them exactly the way they treated the law and its keepers. As per estimate, over 50 bullets each were hit at both Bonnie and Clyde. This inexplicable anger was something to be seen for the very first time. The argument has been made by leading social commentators that the savagery of Bonnie and Clyde is pandemic but it also stems from the very system they were trying to wreak havoc on.
The Highwaymen is an engaging view from the perspective of the sniper, the hunter and the pursuer. Frank Hamer who is a laid off Ranger from Texas gets a call from the mayor to do a hit job on Bonnie and Clyde at a time when he isn’t that young, is refreshingly different. Think about a film like “The Day Of The Jackal” where The Jackal is being hunted by Inspector Claude Label. The film offers the emotional catharsis from Label’s perspective and that is where Highwaymen scores really well. Frank and Maney’s presence is so dominant in the narrative that the viewers don’t see Bonnie and Clyde for more than 2-3 minutes in the full film. Director John Lee Hancock weaves an intricate web of their “struggle” while looking for clues and leads in an “internet-less” world where there is scarce information at their disposal.
In one of the defining sequences, Frank insists that his group stays behind and that he will take aim at Bonnie and Clyde when they pass by Ivy’s broken car( The car and Ivy himself are planted by Hamer and Maney). Frank also very specifically chooses his suit, his shirt and his tie a day before when he and his team of Rangers have to nail Bonnie and Clyde. Frank
treats this event like a ceremony of sorts. These details play a crucial role in the film’s storytelling.
Highwaymen depicts a very trying time for the American citizenry in the early 1930’s. No jobs, no work and racism at its peak. Frank and his team of the Texas Rangers have been let go to cut costs in law enforcement. There is a sense of negativity in the air. And the film shows that in the MidWest states like Texas and Louisiana, people are having a hard time surviving every day. In one particular scene Maney who is jobless for years is seen having a wholesome breakfast meal where his son is “marveling a biscuit”. These references create an even more tough set of rules.
Kevin Costner as Frank Hamer clearly takes the cake here. His portrayal presents a unique calmness of the human brain of someone engaged in an inherently chaotic world. In one of the scenes, Frank is seen playing “shoot the thrown bottle” game with a bunch of kids as he feels the lack of action. In another scene, he is roughing up a taller gas station attendant who shows his admiration for Bonnie and Clyde. This particular performance brings back the Costner of “The Untouchables” where he played agent Eliot Ness who is tasked to arrest gangster Al Capone.
Woody Harrelson too gives a solid supporting performance but the film clearly belongs to Costner. Kathy Bates does a spirited act of Governor Ferguson.
I give “The Highwaymen” a 7 out of 10 purely because Director Hancock and Costner are able to bring new life with a fresh idea in a crowded story genre.