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At the 2017 Academy Awards a little over two years ago, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway presented the biggest prize of the evening, the award for best picture. It was the first time the two actors had taken the Oscar stage together, and the pairing was meant to evoke the glamor, beauty, and all-around cool the filmmaking industry associates with their revered 1967 classic, Bonnie and Clyde. It was also exactly the image and impulse director John Lee Hancock’s latest film, The Highwaymen, takes issue with.
Hancock is a professing Christian, and the movies he’s best known for align with the sort of family-friendly entertainment most believers probably think filmmakers of faith should be making. The Blind Side, The Rookie, and Saving Mr. Banks—all are rated G to PG-13, and all have accessible, feel-good themes.
The Highwaymen, now available on Netflix, is different. To start with, it’s rated R for language and a final scene of fairly graphic (though I would argue appropriate) violence. Yet while the profanity is frequent and sometimes unnecessary even for authenticity’s sake, The Highwaymen may be Hancock’s most Biblically grounded film yet. It takes on not just the Depression-era criminal spree of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, but the myth of nobility Hollywood has built around countless criminals.
From the first scenes, Hancock turns both barrels on the so-called legend of Bonnie and Clyde. “Some folks are saying Parker and Barrow are heroes, calling them Robin Hoods,” a reporter calls out to Texas Gov. Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (a characteristically plucky Kathy Bates). Ma fires back, “Did Robin Hood ever shoot a gas station attendant point-blank in the head for four dollars and a tank of gas?”
Since J. Edgar Hoover’s newfangled investigation methods, such as wiretapping, are proving no help in tracking down the killers, Ma turns for help to two retired Texas Rangers. The Rangers, Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, are played with steely efficiency and great chemistry by Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson.
Correcting the fictitious record of the Beatty-Dunaway film, The Highwaymen shows that, far from being a bumbling publicity hound, Hamer was a smart, serious lawman who was never taken hostage by the photogenic duo. At the same time, Hancock resists painting a purely honorable portrait of the Rangers. It’s clear Hamer and Maney have a history of bending rules to suit their aims, and they do so again in pursuit of the Barrow gang.
But if Hancock’s indictment of Hollywood’s idolization of Bonnie and Clyde tweaks the left, Maney’s comments about the emotional toll he’s suffered for following Hamer’s lead in some ways challenges right-leaning audiences who often cheer stories of renegade cops. Meanwhile, a speech where Hamer reveals he once wanted to be a pastor before circumstances revealed a capacity for violence in his nature suggests, like King David, he missed out on certain blessings due to the blood on his hands.
It probably shouldn’t be surprising that mainstream reviews of The Highwaymen have been tepid, given how hard it pushes back against a film Hollywood has long hailed as one of its greatest works. And there’s no question it indicts the media for heroizing the wrong people. But that would be just another us vs. them movie, and The Highwaymen is smarter than that: It also shows that the tendency to worship the worst things is a temptation of every fallen, sinful heart. After all, yellow journalists can’t feed a public that isn’t hungry for their wares.
From Jesse James and Billy the Kid to The Godfather and the GoodFellas, from rap stars whose “street cred” comes from sex trafficking to reality TV moguls who rise on the fame of pornography, idolizing immorality is hardly unusual. But, as The Highwaymen points out, what woe comes to a culture that calls good evil and evil good.