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‘The Highwaymen’ Won’t Let the Old Ways Die

Plus some other random thoughts about the new Kevin Costner/Woody Harrelson crime drama

“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die” wasn’t just a lyric from Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born. In the months since the Oscar-winning remake hit theaters, that line became a rallying cry for factions of our culture that are pushing for a more diverse society and rebelling against an aging, white patriarchal order. Just as Cooper’s struggling, famous musician gave way to Lady Gaga’s younger aspiring singer, so too do we see — in everything from Black Panther’s ascension to the reassessment of the legacy of the Lorena Bobbitt — a gradual shift in our thinking to a (hopefully) more progressive mindset. Sometimes, the old ways have to die so that new ideas and attitudes can thrive.

Naturally, there’s simultaneously a pushback. Clint Eastwood still makes (pretty decent) movies from a small-c conservative perspective, and Hollywood is far from being as inclusive as it could be. The old ways are still alive and well, and sometimes they’re even eulogized. That’s certainly going on in The Highwaymen, which isn’t particularly good but is endlessly intriguing because of its unadorned worldview. It’s rare to find a “get off my lawn” movie this articulate and honest about its retro ambitions. The fact that it doesn’t quite succeed only makes this melancholy movie more poignant.

The film, which hit Netflix on Friday, has a clever premise. We all know the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, those Depression-era lovers and bandits who captured the country’s imagination with their daring exploits. (In 1967, Hollywood bolstered their legend thanks to Bonnie and Clyde, which starred the impossibly beautiful Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, helping to kick-start the New Hollywood era that reshaped the studio system of the 1970s.) Because Bonnie and Clyde are celebrated as spirited individualists at war with conformity, we rarely think about those who might have detested this couple. The Highwaymen tells that story, exploring the relationship between Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), aging lawmen assigned to take out Bonnie and Clyde. For generations, Bonnie and Clyde have been cult heroes. In The Highwaymen, they’re the bad guys.

Between its casting of familiar, older stars and its unflashy style, The Highwaymen makes no apologies about the type of film it is and who its audience is meant to be:

And while there’s no question that The Highwaymen is the dad rock of true-life period crime dramas, director John Lee Hancock and his stars never make you feel gross for sympathizing with Hamer and Gault’s plight. They’re not portrayed as racists, sexists or reactionary wingnuts. But it’s interesting to see a movie whose thesis is that we shouldn’t admire Bonnie and Clyde — as they’re depicted in The Highwaymen, they’re cold-blooded killers, narcissistic young twits who think that society’s laws don’t apply to them. It’s very much an older person’s viewpoint, resenting any challenge to the status quo from whippersnappers who don’t have the good sense to know better.

There’s an elegiac quality to the movie, which moseys along without any particular haste. (The Highwaymen clocks in at 132 minutes.) It’s a film in which two middle-aged guys hang out while investigating clues that might lead to the whereabouts of the Barrow gang, occasionally reminiscing about the past and their years of friendship. Throughout The Highwaymen, Hamer and Gault are reminded that life has passed them by. They’re no longer in great shape, which makes it hard to run down younger, fitter suspects. They used to be Texas Rangers before the program was shut down, in part to embrace new policing techniques. And Hamer in particular is offended that people idolize Bonnie and Clyde, lamenting this newfangled penchant to put criminals on a pedestal. For these guys, this manhunt also feels a little like one last hurrah before being put out to pasture.

For much of his career, Costner has represented the Old Ways, even when he was young. In the 1980s, his characters in Bull Durham and Field of Dreams stood for tradition — not surprisingly, these were movies about baseball, the North American sport most invested in romanticizing the past — and he’s become an institution by conveying square-jawed integrity. (In retrospect, it’s funny that he played Jim Garrison in JFK: That Oliver Stone movie is one of the rare instances where he’s trying to shake up the status quo.) Whether going after Al Capone in The Untouchables or sticking up for Native Americans in Dances With Wolves, Costner on screen doesn’t want the world to change — or to be threatened by outsiders.

Seeing him as Hamer in The Highwaymen is particularly bittersweet. Recently turned 64, Costner is now old enough to really embody the crotchety demeanor he portrayed in his youth. But there’s no sly subversion going on here, no tweaking of an established persona. As Hamer, Costner is still grumblingly staring down those who threaten his character’s way of life. All along, he’s been our silent protector, our perpetual grump. Like his character, Costner doesn’t seem to know any other way.

Years ago, if Hancock had had his druthers, The Highwaymen would have reunited longtime friends Paul Newman and Robert Redford as the two lawmen, which is itself a pretty nostalgic notion. But the film’s rosy recollection of the past proves to be thorny. The Highwaymen’s Depression-era setting and no-nonsense approach mean to evoke a tougher, more rugged era free of the glitz and superficiality of our modern age. (This isn’t the kind of movie that will inspire dozens of cutesy GIFs.) And yet, The Highwaymen also wants to readjust our perception of the past, arguing that our fondness for the legend of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow is wrong and, worse, immature.

In The Highwaymen, Hamer and Gault know that the old ways are dying, but before these men step aside, they have to do one last good thing. And that, ultimately, is what’s so touching about this otherwise mediocre film. Hamer and Gault stop Bonnie and Clyde, but they can’t kill these criminals’ rebellious spirit, that desire to upend the past and remake society in daring new colors. That’s why there’s no triumph at The Highwaymen’s end. The more people try to keep the old ways alive, the clearer it is that that stranglehold can’t last. These lawmen make it out alive, but it’s Bonnie and Clyde who will live forever.  

Here are three other takeaways from The Highwaymen.

#1. Here’s a quick guide to songs about Bonnie and Clyde.

There are plenty of ways to measure the cultural footprint of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. (Having an Oscar-winning movie devoted to your exploits doesn’t hurt.) But it’s remarkable that, years after their killing, these lovers have been the subject of so many songs.

As such, I put together a not-in-any-way-definitive Spotify playlist of memorable Bonnie and Clyde songs. Some of them are pretty well-known. Perhaps the most famous is “Bonnie and Clyde,” which multi-threat artist Serge Gainsbourg and actress Brigitte Bardot released in 1968, the year after Bonnie and Clyde hit theaters. This slinky, sexy French tune remains the epitome of hipster cool, covered by tons of musicians and constantly popping up on film soundtracks. (Last year, it appeared in the Anna Kendrick/Blake Lively thriller A Simple Favor.)

Funny enough, though, it wasn’t the only song to come out in 1968 that was inspired by the Warren Beatty film. That same year, outlaw country singer Merle Haggard recorded “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde,” which emphasized their doomed love, while British singer Georgie Fame gave us “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde,” a self-consciously old-timey ditty meant to evoke the jazzy sounds of Depression-era songs.

But the killers’ legacy got another substantial boost once hip hop grew in stature. From Eminem to Foxy Brown, Bonnie and Clyde became fodder for us-against-the-world love songs. Probably the best of the bunch is “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde,” a 2002 duet between Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Annoyingly, it’s not available on Spotify, but you probably remember the track.

From indie rock to dance, Bonnie and Clyde have infiltrated all different genres of music. My playlist even includes a couple of South Korean takes on their legend. And that’s not even mentioning Bonnie X Clyde, an American EDM group. In 2018, writer Kylie de la Bruyère explained how the duo landed on the name: “[Band members Daniel Litman and Paige Lopynski] decided it was key to have a name that would resonate with people. After researching powerful couple names and bouncing a few around like Hansel and Gretel, finally one stuck with them. Bonnie X Clyde was it.”

All of this would no doubt annoy Frank Hamer, who was incensed that people thought Bonnie and Clyde were cool.

#2. Bonnie and Clyde (sorta) inspired America’s first gun-control policy.

The Highwaymen is set in 1934 near the end of Bonnie and Clyde’s crime wave. (They were shot dead May 23 of that year.) There’s a scene early in the film in which Hamer goes into a gun shop to buy a ton of weapons, shocking the owner by just how much firepower he’s after.

It made me wonder what gun laws were like back then. Turns out, a major piece of legislation was ratified in 1934, and Bonnie and Clyde had a little something to do with it. Per a Washington Post piece on America’s history of gun-control legislation, which kicked off in 1934:

“Spurred by the bloody ‘Tommy gun’ era ushered in by Al Capone, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde … President Franklin D. Roosevelt mounts a ‘New Deal for Crime.’ One part of it is the National Firearms Act of 1934, the first federal gun-control law, which levies a restrictive $200 tax on the manufacture or sale of machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. All sales were to be recorded in a national registry.”

According to Adam Winkler, author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, “When gun owners objected, Congress scaled down FDR’s proposal to allow only for a restrictive tax on machine guns and sawed-off shotguns, which were thought to be gangster weapons with no usefulness for self-defense.”

As that early legislative battle suggests, the sticking point for gun legislation has seemingly always been what guns are okay for “everyday” people to own. This Time timeline lays out how new gun laws have constantly tried to balance between reacting to tragedies (such as the high-profile assassinations of the 1960s) and protecting gun manufacturers from lawsuits.

And in case you’re wondering, we know all the weapons Bonnie and Clyde had on them when they died, including 3,000 rounds of ammunition. In that same article, I learned what one member of the Barrow gang, W.D. Jones, thought of Bonnie and Clyde. “The only thing that ain’t plumb silly the way they play it is the gun battles,” he said in 1968. “Them was real enough to almost make me hurt.”

#3. Whose band is better: Kevin Costner’s or Woody Harrelson’s?

Both of them are award-winning actors, but Highwaymen costars Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson have something else in common: They dabble in music, although one is much more serious about it than the other.

For Harrelson, music seems like little more than a fun goof. But it was actually his first passion: As he told the L.A. Times in 1991, he got into music as a boy, digging on the Beatles and the Monkees, eventually developing a taste for Elvis. “Music was always something I wanted to do, it’s always been cooking right below the surface,” Harrelson said at the time. “But then once I landed the Cheers role and got famous for that, I felt that people wouldn’t take my music thing seriously, which is understandable.”

This, however, didn’t stop him from forming Manly Moondog and the Three Kool Kats, a R&B/rockabilly group consisting of 10 members, which toured in the early 1990s. “A lot of people come with preconceptions about what they’re gonna see and certainly preconceptions about my personality or character,” Harrelson admitted. “I think sometimes that really works in my favor because they might not be expecting really good music and what they get is first-rate.”

On the strength of the evidence below, I’d respectfully disagree with Woody. (Trigger warning: There is a rap breakdown at one point, although thankfully not by Harrelson.)

Costner has pursued music much more intently. For more than 10 years, he’s been part of Kevin Costner & Modern West, a country-rock unit that’s put out several records and toured around the globe. It won’t surprise you to learn that their music is super sincere, since that’s the way Costner has always been in his acting.

“I have a feeling about music that a lot of people do,” Costner told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. “It seeps into my work and it seeps into my life. I like to play live. I like the drama of it all. I like the communal feeling about it, and I feel like it gives me my best chance of having an authentic relationship with a bunch of people without it turning into autographs or pictures. Some of our songs are about when we’re in the fifth grade and some of them are about Iraq and some of them are about people dying and some of them are about falling in love and some of them are about how come we are in love.”

My question: If you had to spend the rest of your life listening to only one of these two men’s music, which would you choose? Yes, these are terrible options. Still, I’d probably take Costner’s brand of bland, professional rock. Woody’s stuff almost makes me long for Bruno.