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It was French New Wave great Jean-Luc Godard who memorably mused that in order to criticize a movie, you must make another movie. Now, under this precise principle, Netflix’s new period piece The Highwaymen has arrived to set the record straight about Arthur Penn’s 1967 take on the legend of Bonnie and Clyde. After 50 years vaunted as a masterpiece of New Hollywood film-making and 60s zeitgeist, it’s finally getting taken down a peg, courtesy of some fogeyish cop-aganda furious that the world won’t follow its moral code.
The earlier film, promoted with the flirty tagline “They’re young … they’re in love … and they kill people”, submitted the ravishing Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as icons of countercultural style. They stole from the corrupt Depression-era banks as an act of working-class protest, and because they looked so damn good doing it, they won the public’s perverse adoration. Penn spawned a seductive new breed of antihero, societal rebels that audiences would like both despite and because of their lapses in character.
John Lee Hancock’s newest feature, a Netflix release distinguished from the glut of content by virtue of its hefty and questionably allocated $49m budget, wants you to know that Bonnie and Clyde were not cool. In the first few minutes, a press conference comes to a head when a reporter asks the Texas governor, “Ma” Ferguson, (a briefly glimpsed Kathy Bates) whether the crooks might be seen as Robin Hood figures by the commonfolk. She responds that they killed a civilian in cold blood, and that’s that, blunt law and order worldview established.
Hancock and scriptwriter John Fusco (most recently credited with adapting the utterly baffling Christian parable The Shack in 2017) flip the Bonnie and Clyde narrative’s focus to Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, the faceless feds who pumped the robbers full of lead at the bloody conclusion of Penn’s classic. Their targets only appear in a couple of scenes, seldom with their faces shown, and with only one line to minimize any possible glorification. We instead follow the two ageing Texas Rangers (portrayed respectively by Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, favored actors of your uncle who was in the army) on their dogged pursuit of the celebrity criminals, where they encounter a great many supporters of Bonnie and Clyde.
Every time they cross paths with a sympathizer – which happens a lot, as if the film is helpless to deny the populist appeal of its ostensible villains – loose cannon Hamer gets so very, very mad. An insolent gas station attendant claims not to have any intel on the culprits’ whereabouts, and that he wouldn’t share it even if he did, so Hamer assaults him. He then gives a stirring speech about responsibility and justice to take the edge off of the casual police brutality, and the man nursing a mouthful of broken teeth undergoes a change of heart. He decides to assist them in their mission, just as Clyde Barrow’s father snitches on his own son in the wake of a similarly convincing monologue from Hamer a few scenes later.
Papa Barrow even gives Hamer permission to kill his son on sight, explaining that Clyde won’t allow himself to be taken alive. It’s an easy out for the ethical tarnish of shooting first and asking questions never during the final onslaught of bullets. Hancock and Fusco want their protagonists to be the good guys so badly that they have rigged the game, creating a world were everything they do becomes right by virtue of having been done by them. This is, not quite incidentally, the exact philosophy of law enforcement that’s created a culture of fear and contempt for the frequently violent, unaccountable policing in America.
The film retrofits the Dirty Harry-style “cop on the edge who doesn’t play by the rules” archetype for the 1930s, with its reactionary politics even more pronounced when literally reacting to the 60s film’s liberal attitudes. As Hamer goes to the town gun store to pick up an armory’s worth of firepower, the camera pornographically pans over the weaponry. The final scene squeezes in a gesture of mild disdain for the press, in case the whiff of Maga in the air wasn’t yet detectable. Though Hamer loathes Bonnie and Clyde from the bottom of his cholesterol-hardened heart, Costner emotes the obligatory hesitance when mentioning that he “never shot a girl before”.
That comment feels like it’s of a piece with Hamer’s impeccably coiffed and largely silent wife, or the sleek Jaguar that he drives, or his perfectly pressed suit and fedora combo. At the heart of all the bluster, all the impotent rage over the cop killers the public won’t stop idolizing, lies an old-fashioned notion of masculinity rooted in insecurity and smallness. The long since retired Hamer and Gault have aged into geezerhood and the film has a slight sense of humor about it, dealing the latter an enflamed prostate necessitating numerous pee breaks. Mostly, however, it exists to affirm that these men and the men like them are still empowered and relevant. The raison d’être of the microgenre I have previously termed “geriaction” is propping up its chosen heroes’ crumbling male egos; to prove he’s still got it, Gault beats up a couple of muggers who attempt to jump him mid-urination with his offscreen penis hanging out, and then gives one a swirly.
The cruel irony of this film and its ideological brethren is that they cannot help but lay bare their anxieties while sweatily laboring to assuage them. The harder that Hancock and Fusco shake their fists and stamp their feet and insist that Bonnie and Clyde were just your average dime store sociopaths, the less convincing their counterargument. Watching Costner try in vain to scale a wooden fence, a viewer may see outmoded mores of manhood fading before their very eyes. Hamer and Gault won the day in a hail of submachine fire, but even their hagiography can’t hide that they’re history’s losers.
Source: The Guardian
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