Grumpy Old Highwaymen

‘Unforgiven’ Meets ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, for Conservative Seniors

The Highwaymen pairs Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, who play very familiar characters. Imagine Eliot Ness meeting the serial cheater from True Detective,  but now they’re retired geezers who used to kill shitloads of people. You like the movie Unforgiven?  How about Unforgiven, airing only on Netflix, but set in the 1930s and about the people that actually gunned down Bonnie and Clyde? Imagine the comedy! Think about all the intense acting!

Remember that actually funny scene from the Unforgiven where Clint Eastwood tries to shoot a can but misses over and over again until he grabs a shotgun? The Highwaymen has two of those. (They’re not as funny.)

But The Highwaymen lacks the moral ambiguity that made Unforgiven a great film.  Unforgiven starts by declaring Eastwood’s character once killed women and children. He hunts a man who cut up a prostitute because her hooker friends didn’t think the local sheriff punished him enough. They even turn down a free horse from the friend of the culprit because they want blood, not compensation. They ignore the law and patronize vigilantism, while the sheriff is willing to do anything to keep the peace.

In The Highwaymen, Costner and Harrelson, former Texas Rangers, avenge cops. Lots and lots of dead cops. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie and Clyde, or even Dana Ashbrook and Tracey Needham’s “true” Bonnie & Clyde,  made heroes out of the outlaws. The Bonnie and Clyde in The Highwaymen kill cops so ruthlessly they’d give Ice T a case of the vapors. They don’t just shoot cops–they blow their heads off.

Yet The Highwaymen still tries to insert the idea that people hunted Bonnie and Clyde reluctantly. Harrelson’s character moans about the possibility of having to kill a girl. He repeatedly comments that Bonnie Parker is “just a tiny thing.” The childhood friend of Bonnie and Clyde they hire to help catch the deadly pair also mopes over the idea of killing the sweet, super-cute Bonnie.

Given the content of The Highwaymen, they shouldn’t show any reluctance. The movie twice shows Bonnie shoot a cop in the face as he lies defenseless on the ground. TWICE! Bonnie and Clyde murder cops like average people in the ‘30s smoked cigarettes. With bodies of dead police officers piling up like firewood, no one would protest B&C’s deaths at the hands of law enforcement, even today. I’d even wager there’d be an uproar on social media if the law took them alive.

A lot about the Highwaymen bothered me, like its disturbingly snarky attitude towards the government. Apparently the FBI and its modern fact-finding techniques can’t compare with the knowledge and experience of a couple of retired Texas Rangers who can look at cigarette butts and tell how long ago people smoked them.  It’s crazy! Yet the Highwaymen succeed in tracking down Bonnie and Clyde only because they have files upon files about them, compiled by the agencies they disdain. The two drive around in a car full of paperwork and guns. They say they don’t need technology to find the two killers, yet wiretapped information provides the foundation for their investigation.

Clearly The Highwaymen needed a better script than the half-baked one churned out by Young Guns screenwriter John Fusco.  It’s directed well enough by John Lee Hancock, the Texan behind the Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks, and there’s real chemistry between Costner and Harrelson.  But a lot of the dialogue between Costner and Harrelson starts with a reference to their dark past followed by another bit of info to move the story along. It feels like a school assignment written the night before it’s due, and the movie had been in the works since 2005.

Woody Harrelson, Kevin Costner, and some whippersnapper star in The Highwaymen, on Netflix.

In the end, The Highwaymen is just another Hollywood movie with a target audience, and that audience has to be conservative seniors. All the tropes of that interest group are there:  the politicians focus only on their interests, the rich provide all the support, evil is inherent in some folks and they need to be killed. To top it off, Costner acts as a walking Blue Lives Matter meme, crying over every lost officer and rattling off their life story to anyone not sufficiently sad enough. The civilians that Bonnie and Clyde kill, well, he doesn’t talk about them.

So if you want a good movie like Unforgiven, watch Unforgiven. If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s a fantastic tribute to the greatest westerns, with Clint Eastwood using everything he learned under Sergio Leone. But if you want a Hollywood movie drenched in conservative values and packed with cops being shot in the face, The Highwaymen is for you.

Kevin L. Jones

Kevin L. Jones is a freelance writer and audio producer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can see more of his work at kevinljones.com.

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