The Highwaymen, as a proposition, is enticing. Who doesn’t want to see Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson partner up as the last cowboys chasing down the last outlaws? Correct: nobody. That person doesn’t exist. The problem, however, is when that cops and robbers story just isn’t very interesting.
Or, put more accurately, isn’t told in an interesting way. As David Fincher showed with Zodiac, face-to-face contact isn’t necessary to cultivate drama between your protagonist and antagonist. Toying with that indulgence is a treat all its own. Here, however, director John Lee Hancock and writer John Fusco stick with their respective penchants for straightforward, uncomplicated storytelling and teetering on the edge of hagiography.
You can see where it wants to go, though. By putting Coster and Harrelson in the shoes of legendary Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, it garners a sort of Taylor Sheridan vibe—the elder statesmen being shouldered off the road with an unrelenting and indifferent new age. Tracking the amped up and vilified crimes of Bonnie Parker (Emily Brobst) and Clyde Barrow (Edward Bossert) across the Central United States, it feels as much a Western as a movie actually involving horses and lassos.
It does its best to conjure these mythical elements of the solemn cowboy life. Bonnie and Clyde are twisted into their pop culture totems, swirling in cigar smoke and mystery and a hail of machine gun bullets (despite testimony indicating otherwise). Hamer and Gault saddle up once more in their Ford-manufactured steed and an army-sized cache of firearms. And neither are ever at home in their home—only on the road, between what they’ve left in their rearview and the horizon.
And these bits, in fact, is where the movie does its best work, if a bit familiar. In the early scenes, we see what Hamer and Gault are leaving behind and what drives them to embark on what may be a one-way trip to justice. It frames their conflicting methods and motivations as if to set up an ideological collision, a staple of modern Westerns. But it never capitalizes on this work. It just sort of putters around with some esoteric backstory before laying it all bare with almost zero impact.
You are, however, naturally drawn to the presentation being that Costner and Harrelson are also naturally magnetic actors. They’re charming and imposing in equal measure as the moment calls for it. This gravity, however, ends up working against the movie as it makes you pay closer attention to its deficiencies. The lack of payoff for the Hamer/Gault dichotomy, the meandering focus of the narrative, the lost side stories. They come up in stark contrast when you realize you’re getting nothing but Harrelson’s baby blues and Costner’s gruff demeanor.
As a consequence, the pacing feels sluggish rather than deliberate. Things happen, but not progress. It’s just a steady, plodding march to its inevitable conclusion with little stakes and no drama. Obstacles come up and they are dutifully resolved. The aforementioned new age pushes and Hamer and Gault give their obligatory push back and everyone just goes their separate ways. The monotony is as deafening as it is exhausting with its 132-minute runtime doing nobody any favors.
And it all builds to that storied ending, which, for people that already know, isn’t particularly exciting, but that does not stop Hancock from trying to make it so. He implores you to believe that this hilariously unnecessary, uh, event is instead a glorious imperative as good smashes up against evil. It’s so incongruous with the film as it tries to tell you that it plays into all the melancholic contemplation of its elegiac foundation, a pair of heroes completely out of step with the world but as integral as ever.
It’s easy to overlook if you are committed enough. Push yourself off the need to be compelled to watch and instead resign yourself to just losing two hours of your life and it’s a perfectly functional film. And that makes it better than a lot of other projects, but it’s so incredibly far from anything worthwhile. Unless you just really, really, really want to see Costner and Harrelson play together.
Final Score: 5 out of 10