Die! In the name of the law! This is the engine that drives The Highwaymen, Netflix’s retelling of the exploits of Depression era bank-robbers, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, and the men who killed them. The Highwaymen follows two ex-Texas Rangers, Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) who are brought out of retirement by the no-nonsense state Governor, Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates), for one last job - the extrajudicial execution of outlaws deemed too famous and too violent to be brought to justice any other way.
The Highwaymen is constructed, from its opening shots, around symbols of American Opportunity - vast space, straight roads, Ford cars. The dust of the dirt track and the vintage car show that this is an America of the past, nostalgically rendered through long, loving shots of Ford emblems on car bonnets. Both the outlaws and the law drive Fords - one stolen at gunpoint, one bought with hard-earned pay from a job in private security. The opening song of the soundtrack, composed for the film by Thomas Newman, is called ‘Ford V-8 Deluxe’. The outlaws drive recklessly, switching cars to avoid detection. Hamer’s car is sleek, the dark paintwork reflecting the sky above, almost always in motion. Hamer cares for his car - as he sets out his wife’s parting words are, ‘If you're covering miles, keep oil in her’. By contrast the Barrow Gang cars are brash cherry red and often sit, unnaturally still, waiting in lure for policemen, the sinister score confirming the sense that these cars have been mispurposed or misused. Who, the film asks, has the right to drive this most American commodity and how does this define their relationship with the state? The film, after all, is Based On A True Story, set in actually existing America. Hamer and Gault track the Barrow Gang across the country:
‘North to Kansas or Iowa,
east to Illinois or Indiana,
south to Arkansas.
Then right back to Texas
to start over again.
We got no jurisdiction north of Red River.
Maybe Hoover will take 'em up there.
Hamer and Gault discuss a lead in Bienville Parish, East of Shreveport. Seconds later, a title card - the Ford draws in to - ‘Bienville Parish, East of Shreveport. Kansas’. This verisimilitude established between the historical narrative and its cinematic representation lends the film a documentary weight, a realism. It also creates a of logic of believability in which the accuracy of small things - dates and place names - suggests, by extension, the authenticity of bigger things - the character of Hamer and Gault, the evil of Bonnie and Clyde and the ideological integrity of their mission.
The tightly scripted geographic references also link The Highwaymen to the Western genre - to cowboys and cattle drives to Missouri and the Red River. The film is attuned to this, Gault remarking, ‘I don’t remember a saddle being as hard on a man’s ass as these seats’. In typical Western tradition Hamer and Gault are old men positioned against progress, washed-up and beat, who ‘might go to hell’ for what they have done - their hard justice set against the softer sensibilities of the modernising police force who believe that the time ‘to put a pair of man-killers on the trail and let them do their job’ has passed. This is a recurring Western motif, personified in the clash between James Stewart and John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance wherein lethal violence is discounted as Old West, soft and dangerously out of date - until someone comes along too evil to be stopped by sensitive, modern means. Violent and scored into American geography - the history of the Western genre is replete with gun-toting double-acts: John Wayne and Walter Brennan in Rio Bravo, or Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. These partnerships work because of contrasts between the characters - their differences and their attempts to bridge these are often the source of humour or poignancy. In The Highwaymen, however, Hamer and Gault are both firmly characterised as gruff curmudgeons, their monosyllables providing little space to riff off one another. There are attempts to add lightness to their characters - Hamer has a pet boar (Porky), Gault has bladder issues. But these grueling additions to the script are a side-note to the main focus: their damaged Old West masculinity which can only be redeemed through a job well done. The Texas Rangers (founded during colonial expansion into Mexico, historically both a police force and patriotic militia, and symbolic of state power at home and abroad) have been disbanded by Ma Ferguson - the time of the violent cowboys is past. Instead Hamer and Gault must work on ‘special assignment’ - as Highwaymen. But under whatever modern bureaucratic aegis they are assigned, Hamer and Gault are cowboys in their mind’s eye. Figuratively, they pick up their sheriff’s star from the dust, pin it ceremoniously back to their jacket and saddle up.
The film works hard to characterise Hamer and Guilt as inherently good, whilst Bonnie and Clyde are intrinsically bad. The faces of the outlaws are hidden throughout. In place of a character for Bonnie we see only an immaculately stockinged and shod foot (the violence thus eroticised and gendered) as she blasts cops’ heads with a sawn off shotgun. Any scenes which might go somewhere to explain the lawlessness of Clyde and Parker or flesh out their characters are set up to damn rather than mitigate. Clyde’s first brush with the law, we learn, was to ‘steal a goddamn chicken’. But in the black and white logic of good and evil this is proof enough of bad character; in a climactic line Hamer asks ‘You ever think maybe there was something in Clyde that made him steal that chicken in the first place?’ Assertions of their immorality take the form of rhetorical questions, barked at anyone who might defend the gang. They must not be romanticised. As Ma Ferguson asks, ‘Did Robin Hood ever shoot a gas station attendant point-blank in the head for four dollars and a tank of gas?’ Bit Characters line up to confirm the justice of the death sentence. Ma Ferguson, the Texas police force, Clyde’s Father and Hamer’s wife confirm that ‘there is only one way this is going to end’. These are reasonable people - adults, property owners, elected officials - conferring reasonableness and a humanitarian drive to their mission. On the afternoon before the execution Hamer and Gault undertake a pre-killing cleanse - shave, fresh suits - bathed in beautiful white dusky light. Killing may be dirty and distasteful but they will be wearing crisp white shirts when they pull the trigger. And my god, when they pull the trigger - over 167 bullets are fired into Bonnie and Clyde’s car, ripping the outlaws, and their 1934 Ford Deluxe, to bits.
But how does the film want us to see these deaths? At times the message seems confused. Sad music plays as the hail of bullets come to an end. We see Bonnie and Clyde’s faces just once - terror-stricken - as Hamer and Gault must have seen them as they opened fire. A tragedy has occurred. But whose tragedy? The lingering shots on Hamer and Gault’s careworn faces assure us that it is theirs. This scene is the most dramatic encapsulation of the film’s aim - a new telling of an old story from the other side of the law. The credits underscore this idea of a story re-told for different tragic emphasis. We are shown black and white 1930s photographs of Hamer and Gault and the Texas police force, the chromatic colouring asserting their everyday heroism and the historical truth of the drama. In monochrome lettering suggestive of Objective Historical Fact (rather than Carefully Selected Fact) we are told that Clyde and Parker’s funeral attracted 35,000 mourners. They, at least, were celebrated. Hamer and Gault, by contrast, return to relative obscurity as unsung heroes. But the final title card informs us that an even greater justice resulted from Hamer and Gault’s success - the full restoration of the Texas Rangers Department, justifying the central argument of the film and of policing practice; that sometimes, people have to die.