It’s easy to assume that the modern-day obsession with celebrity scandals has arisen only in the 25 years since the OJ Simpson freeway chase and trial. But the new Netflix film “The Highwaymen” serves as a bracing reminder that Americans were losing their collective minds over notorious figures in the news decades before the infamous football player captured the nation’s attention.
Starring the dream team of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, respectively, the film presents an in-depth look at the men who brought the notoriously violent criminal couple Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow down in 1934. In essence, it serves as the flipside to the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde.” And while it doesn’t quite match up to that film’s classic status, it’s got plenty of terrific attributes of its own.
Directed by longtime Pasadenan John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “The Founder,” “Saving Mr. Banks”) from a script by John Fusco of “Young Guns” fame, “The Highwaymen” takes a slow-burning, psychological approach to much of its storytelling. As Bonnie and Clyde embark on a murderous bank-robbing spree across the South and Midwest during the Great Depression, they are quickly regarded as Robin Hood-style heroes by the general public because they are cleaning out banks.
The top-level federal agents assigned to stop the criminal couple keep failing their assignment, leading Texas Gov. Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) to hire Hamer and Gault against her wishes. Everyone regards them and their old-school approach to crime-solving outdated, but soon these rangers are proving everyone wrong by drawing ever closer to the evildoers using old-fashioned sleuthing, excellent interview skills and good old intuition.
Costner and Harrelson make an excellent team both in the story and in terms of their chemistry and performances. Harrelson’s Gault is a haunted alcoholic trying to regain his dignity but still provides the usual, slyly wicked comic relief the actor is famous for.
Costner, meanwhile, is also haunted by violent encounters in his past cases. In the film’s best-acted scene, he faces off against veteran character actor William Sadler (who plays Clyde’s dad, Henry) as they trade sad stories and realize that Clyde could have easily steered his life in a better direction.
There are a couple of fun foot and car chases, and a shootout that’s effectively intense, along the way. The period details, costumes and settings are all superbly done, which makes this another in a growing list of examples of Netflix’s determination to become a source of A-list films well beyond its recent Best Picture nominee “Roma.”
I’ve been resentful of the streaming giant’s attempts to change the filmmaking experience and drive film viewing to home couches rather than proper cinemas. I normally regard the theatergoing experience as sacrosanct, wanting to see movie stars and great stories projected on giant screens with the sense of communal storytelling that has been a staple of mankind from its earliest days.
But this handsomely mounted production, combined with other recent winners including the Ben Affleck action film “Triple Frontier” and Sandra Bullock’s riveting thriller “Bird Box,” has made me realize that sometimes watching a movie at home is just fine after all. If the story’s great and the project is well-made, maybe it doesn’t matter and hopefully the two forms of viewing — Netflix and its competition at home, and the full-on theater experience — can manage to co-exist effectively.
All in all, this is a solid and moving historical piece that’s shot with an impressive attention to detail. Best of all, you don’t have to hit the LA highways to see it.
“The Highwaymen” : A