(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
As someone who is a history buff and a fan of, and has written on, the Western genre, when I heard about the Netflix original movie The Highwaymen, I knew it would be worth seeing since it is a candidate for both categories. The movie stars Kevin Costner as famed lawman and Texas Ranger Frank “Pancho” Hamer and Woody Harrelson as his old partner Maney Gault, who were charged with hunting down the infamous Depression-era criminal duo of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.
The movie begins in 1934 with Bonnie and Clyde springing members their gang from a prison work detail in Texas which results in the death of a prison guard. Later, during a meeting with Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) and various Texas law enforcement officials, the head of the Department of Corrections Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) says that even after two years of robberies and rising body count, both local law enforcement and the FBI are no closer to nabbing Bonnie and Clyde and the Barrow gang. He then proposes that Ferguson call out of retirement Texas Ranger Frank Hamer to take the pair down.
Everyone present risibly mocks the idea of resurrecting a solution from a bygone era, especially since it was Ferguson who had disbanded the Rangers years before because she could not control them. Nevertheless, with few other options and not wanting the Feds to get all the credit, she relents.
Simmons visits Hamer at his home and asks him if he would be willing to work as a special officer for the Texas Highway Patrol to go after Bonnie and Clyde. Although Hamer scoffs at the idea of being a “Highwayman,” he agrees to take the job even though his wife Gladys is dead-set against it. However, after reading the newspapers and hearing reports on the radio about the Barrow gang's continued criminal activities and killings, she relents and tells Frank that she knew what kind of man he was when she was married him—the kind of man who people would turn to when they were in dire need.
After being given all the relevant files on the Barrow gang, including diaries, letters, and even the FBI's phone tap logs by Simmons, Frank considers recruiting his old partner Maney Gault. Frank drives to Maney's house, where he is living in poverty with his daughter and grandson, but reconsiders and drives away.
However, after a humorous scene in the local gun shop that would make the current anti-gun crowd lose their minds, Maney confronts Frank outside the store. He says that he recognized Frank back at his place and makes his case as to why the two of them should team up again, since all the other members of their old Ranger company are dead. Frank, just like everyone else in the film to this point, relents and the two head off.
The rest of the film goes on to show how, despite their age and being out of practice, the two men are nevertheless highly intelligent, experienced, and adaptable law men who adhere to the words of Louis L'Amour's fictional Texas Ranger, Chick Bowdrie that “a man leaves signs in other people's minds the same way he leaves them on the trail.” From matching code words used in Bonnie's diary to the gang's movement patterns on a map to determining the duos next destination based on the trash they left behind, the two rangers relentlessly follow the trail of Bonnie and Clyde in a way that the FBI, with all its technology and tactics, are not able to.
Of course, as history records, despite exceeding their jurisdiction as Texas Highwaymen, they track the two all the way to Bienville Parish, Lousiana where they, along with other local law enforcement officials, kill Bonnie and Clyde at a prepared ambush site.
A Traditional Western with a Modern (and Catholic) Bent
Although the movie is set in 1934, The Highwaymen still manages to follow a traditional Western format. However, there are certain aspects of the film that are thoroughly modern, and in some respects rather countercultural for our contemporary culture.
One way is that, unlike the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, where Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were meant to embody the anti-establishment and youth counterculture mood of the 60's, the movie has a very unromantic view of the Bonnie and Clyde.
The Depression years of the 1930's was the era of the FBI's “Public Enemies” lists, where violent Tommy gun toting gangsters robbed the banks that many people felt had failed them. This resulted in the public idolizing these criminals' exploits, which was shown in the movie, when Frank and Maney read ridiculous newspaper headlines about Clyde sending a letter to Henry Ford about how Ford made a “dandy” getaway car or when they see numerous women wearing the same kind of beret worn by Bonnie—to say nothing of the crowds who mobbed the couple's car when the locals found out they were in town, and the thousands of people who attended their funerals in real life.
However, the superficiality and inanity of the public's fascination with Bonnie and Clyde is poignantly demonstrated in how the movie contrasts the little actual screen time the two get, with the larger amount of time given to all the blood and death they left in their wake. Thus, the film makes no bones about the fact that underneath their celebrity status and movie star good looks, the two were still criminals who would kill someone just as easily as any of us would roll our eyes at someone.
Secondly, over the course of the movie, we see the development of a very Catholic view on justifiable homicide, where for sake of safeguarding the common good and the lives of innocents, “legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another's life.” The film begins not only with Maney being uneasy about shooting a woman, but with Frank saying that one reason the gang keeps getting away is that other law enforcement officials are uneasy as well. However as the story unfolds, and the number and brutality of the duo's killings increases, Frank becomes knows that such compunctions cannot apply in this case.
Later, when Frank meets Clyde's father and the two quibble over whether Clyde was born a criminal or made one, Frank says that in the end it doesn't matter because at some point the choices he made become solidified into his personality. Deep down the father knows this and tells Frank that he knows Clyde will never be taken alive, and that for the sake of his family's name, the rangers need to “finish this.”
This is a point which Frank later reiterates when Maney arranges for a member of the Barrow gang named McNabb to be paroled so they can interrogate him, but who is later killed by the gang for being a “snitch.” Maney is distraught and feels responsible for the young man's death, but Franks says that McNabb made his own choices about what to do with his life and who to run with. It is then that Maney opens up to Frank about all the pain he has carried around for decades from having to “bear the weight of having to decide who lives or dies.” Frank understands but says that counting McNabb, the gang has killed 13 people and that in the end “it was never easy, it's never pretty, and there is always blood at the end of the road. But this has to stop!”
Thus, when the shootout finally comes, we don't see an iniquitous ambush done by cold-blooded gunfighters but a deliberate and final resolution to end a crime spree that cannot be allowed to continue. Interestingly enough, right before the ambush, Frank finally admits that he too has been haunted by all the killing he has done, and that the reason he initially drove away from Maney's house was because he didn't want to bring Maney back into “this” (the killing). At the same time though, he says that he is glad to have Maney with him, so that he doesn't have to go through the “this” alone.
In the end the movie is a vivid portrayal of how, in times of social and economic unrest, people's need to scapegoat their problems onto others increases as they struggle to cope with events they feel are out other their control. Problems that are, more often than not though, caused by own sinful choices, either as individuals or as a culture.
It is at times like these, that there arise those who for the sake of others have been given the grace to, in imitation of our Blessed Lord, take up a cross other than their own. People like Frank Hamer and Maney Gault or all those in the police and military, who are willing to walk our culture's own Via Dolorosa to combat the evils of this world in our stead. A Via that is filled with both cheering and jeering crowds of people who helped shaped that broken and littered way, and who are both thankful and thankless that someone else is willing to take it.
The movie is rate R for language and violence and while the final shootout is extremely graphic, what is more disturbing is the behavior of the crowds of people who crowd around the bullet-ridden car, with the bodies still in it as it is towed into town.