SXSW Film Festival: The Texas Rangers are a source of deep pride to every Texan. And so the Paramount Theater in Austin was the ideal location to premiere “The Highwaymen,” a film that tells the story of how the most famous Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer, tracked down Bonnie and Clyde in 1934.
Kevin Costner stars as Hamer, a retired Ranger with no desire to return to the difficult work of tracking down outlaws. But with Bonnie and Clyde gaining legions of fans every day, mistaken as some kind of modern day Robin Hoods, Governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) is desperate to bring an end to their crime spree. Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) from the Bureau of Prisons convinces her to reinstate Hamer.
This version of Frank Hamer came about after he was lambasted and turned into something of a buffoon in the infamous 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde.” Hamer’s portrayal in that film prompted his widow, Gladys, to sue Warner Bros. for defamation. She won the lawsuit. Eventually, John Fusco and John Lee Hancock decided to tell the version of the story that would bring justice to Frank Hamer’s legacy. They accomplished their mission with the casting of Kevin Costner.
Some of Costner’s best roles have been quiet men trying to do good. From “Field of Dreams” to “JFK” to “Wyatt Earp,” he carries a sense of dignity and grace. That continues with his performance as Frank Hamer. The lawman spent his career seeing the worst sides of people, chasing down the depraved and merciless. In his retirement, he enjoys the quiet. Costner brings new levels of dignity to a man haunted by the things he has seen and by the things he knows he needs to do. Hamer takes no pleasure in the work, and is unburdened by pride, making Costner the ideal choice to portray him.
Woody Harrelson is Maney Gault, a fellow ranger who knows the truth behind all the legends that follow Hamer. What he really knows is that the legends are all true. Harrelson’s Gault is less quiet and far less dignified than Hamer. But the two are a perfect team of gruff old men, each finding different ways to chase away the ghosts of their supposed glory days with the Rangers. This could have become a buddy cop film, but their job is serious and the humor, while present, is spare. It is a good pairing and their camaraderie feels like the kind of bond forged in shared horrors of the past.
Fusco’s script and Hancock’s direction set up a mostly standard storytelling style that focuses on the good guys versus the bad guys. The infamous Bonnie Parker (Emily Brobst) and Clyde Barrow (Edward Bossert) are never the focus. Unlike the ’67 film, Bonnie and Clyde’s crimes are shown for the depraved acts they are. The country may be increasingly obsessed with the criminal couple, but the truth of their horrifying actions is the more important point. That point is so important to Hancock’s film that he spends most of the film only revealing them in bits. Bonnie’s elegant shoes, or Clyde lighting a cigarette. Family, friends, and former classmates paint the picture of who they were, while the dead police officers in their wake reveal who they are.
“The Highwaymen” moves at the slow pace of two old lawmen tied to the old ways. That is not to say it’s boring. In fact, the story keeps moving and leads to strong moments between the leads, as well as with the deep cast of supporting characters. Governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates), Ted Hinton (Thomas Mann), Henry Barrow (William Sadler) and Lee Simmons all tap into other sides of the story of Bonnie & Clyde. Because the case had broad political stakes as well as close family ones, all in addition to the death and thievery along the way.
Thomas Newman wrote a beautiful score that lifts certain moments and taps into emotions with a poise befitting the era. Paired with John Schwartzman‘s cinematography, this is a film that doesn’t add to the legend of Bonnie & Clyde, and doesn’t turn Frank Hamer into someone larger than life either. It is simply a portrait of a man who went about doing good work. Which is all any real life hero does. And for that, Gladys Hamer can rest assured in the knowledge her husband’s legacy is preserved.