Fugitive hunters

An impressive period piece from lawmen’s point of view

Starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson. Directed by John Lee Hancock. Netflix. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

The Highwaymen, now streaming on Netflix, is centered on the tale of Bonnie and Clyde, the much storied outlaws of the 1930s and the Great Depression, but it tells that story from the point of view of two former Texas Rangers who were assigned to track down the famously elusive couple and bring their criminal escapades to a full, dead stop.

The two aging ex-Rangers, Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, are ably played here by Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, respectively, and the story of their pursuit of the outlaw pair runs parallel to events portrayed in director Arthur Penn’s iconic 1967 Bonnie and Clyde with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in the title roles. Here, until the final showdown, Bonnie and Clyde are seen only in fleeting glimpses, if at all, while Hamer and Gault frequently share the foreground with an intriguing array of historical figures who played important roles in the wide-ranging pursuit.

As written by John Fusco and directed by John Lee Hancock, The Highwaymen functions as a kind of flip-side counterpart to Penn’s wild humored outlaw ballad. But it’s also a richly textured and unexpectedly haunting film that stands quite impressively on its own. It lingers in the memory as a kind of modern-day western, as an astutely understated period piece, as a subtly convoluted crime story, as a stingingly ironic hero tale, and more.

There’s a deep bond of hard-earned friendship between Hamer and Gault, but they’re aging ex-lawmen leading very separate lives when the state of Texas brings them back together as the two old-school “man-killers” needed to catch Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Federal and state lawmen write them off as “old cowboys” and there is a streak of dark comedy running through several episodes in which the ex-Rangers’ tracking methods clash with the modern investigative practices of FBI agents and state lawmen.

The film celebrates the two men’s friendship in mostly understated ways, but gradually also brings out an abiding sense that the bond between them is something like the tragic brotherhood of deeply haunted warriors. A signal event in both men’s pasts as Texas Rangers involves the massacre of 54 Mexican “bandits,” and both men (but especially Hamer) are ferociously dedicated to their jobs as lawmen, but neither has any illusions about any glory that might override the guilt that goes with the killing.

A major motif in Fusco’s screenplay sets up ironic parallels between the outlaw couple and the two aging ex-Rangers: Both are traveling long distances in fast cars with a load of firearms in the back seat; Hamer and Gault have to run through a police roadblock to continue their pursuit of a gang notorious for crashing through roadblocks; Hamer has a conversation with Clyde’s father that seems to put them both outside the law in the usual senses of the term.

Kathy Bates does strong work as Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, the boldly proactive governor of Texas. William Sadler is very good as Clyde’s sorrowful father. Josh Caras is very good as the ill-fated Wade McNabb, a furloughed prisoner whose death aggravates Gault’s sense of guilt. And Kim Dickens dazzles early on as Hamer’s well-to-do wife, Gladys.