Film review: The Highwaymen

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, April 19th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: The Highwaymen.

It’s a new film Megan Basham has seen, and she’s here to tell us about it.

MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: At the 2017 Academy Awards, actors Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway presented the biggest prize of the evening—Best Picture.

AUDIO: And the Academy Award for Best Picture…

It was the first time they’d taken the Oscar stage together. The pairing was meant to evoke the glamor and coolness of their revered 1967 classic, Bonnie and Clyde.  It was also exactly the image and impulse writer/director John Lee Hancock rejects in his latest film, The Highwaymen.

As a professing Christian, Hancock usually makes movies that reflect the 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 easily accessible feel-good themes.

The Highwaymen, which became available last month 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, it may be Hancock’s most biblically grounded film yet. It doesn’t only take on the Depression-era criminal spree of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow: It pushes back against 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.

CLIP: Some folks are saying Parker and Barrow are heroes, calling them Robin Hoods. Are they Robin Hoods, Ma? Did Robin Hood ever shoot a gas station attendant point blank in the head for $4 and a tank of gas?

Since J. Edgar Hoover’s newfangled methods like wire-tapping are proving no help in tracking down the killers, Ma turns to two retired Texas Rangers. Frank Hamer and Maney Gault are played with steely efficiency and great chemistry by Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson.

Repeatedly, The Highwaymen corrects the fictitious record of the Beatty-Dunaway film. It 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 Gault have a history of bending rules to suit their aims and do so again in pursuit of the Barrow gang.

CLIP: If it’s Bonnie and Clyde you’re looking for, I ain’t seen ‘em. And if I did, all the luck to ‘em. They only takin’ from the banks who are taking from the poor folks. Like me. There’s a peace officer who died in a puddle himself back in Dallas. His family will be in the breadline next week. All luck to ‘em? All luck to ‘em? Pancho! Is that really all you have to say son? Pancho!

However, Hancock maintains the moral standard he’s set. If his indictment of Hollywood’s idolization of Bonnie and Clyde tweaks the left, Gault’s comments about the emotional toll he’s suffered for following Hamer deftly challenges those on the right who love renegade cop stories.

Meanwhile, Hamer reveals in a speech that he once wanted to be a pastor before circumstances revealed a capacity for violence in his nature. It suggests, like King David, there are blessings he missed out on due to the blood on his hands.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that the Highwaymen’s mainstream reviews have been only fair, given how hard it pushes back against a film revered in Hollywood. And there’s no question it indicts the media for making heroes of the wrong people.

But that would just be another us vs. them movie, and The Highwaymen is more than that. It also shows that the tendency to worship the worst things is a temptation of all our fallen, sinful hearts. After all, yellow journalists can’t feed a public who aren’t hungry for their wares.

From Jesse James and Billy the Kid to the Godfather and the Goodfellas to rappers who brag about drug-dealing and sex-trafficking, idolizing immorality is hardly unusual. But, as The Highwaymen points out, what woe comes to a culture that calls good evil and evil good.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.

(Hilary B Gayle/Netflix via AP) This image released by Netflix shows Woody Harrelson, left, and Kevin Costner in a scene from “The Highwaymen.” 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Film review: The Highwaymen

  1. Paula Garcia says:

    Your review describes the movie well. It is an engaging movie that captures so many of our human tendancies: political agendas, parental excuses for evil done by our children, ghosts of past actions that haunt us, idolization of evil-doers.

    Thanks for the recommendation.

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