The Highwaymen (2019)

2019 #48
John Lee Hancock | 132 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Highwaymen

There’s a fair chance you know the story of Bonnie and Clyde thanks to the acclaimed 1967 movie (or the 2013 miniseries, or one of the other fictional depictions, or just their general notoriety), but what about the story of the guys who got ’em? For all the Robin Hood-esque heroism that was conveyed upon them by the media at the time and then cemented in subsequent fictional retellings, they were still murder-happy criminals. The Highwaymen sets out to do its part in rectifying this by introducing us to Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), a pair of retired Texas Rangers who were reinstated in early 1934 to track down Bonnie and Clyde and put an end to their crime spree.

Netflix has self-described the film as “The Untouchables meets Public Enemies” (they’re doing the job of reviewers for us!), and, while I’ve only seen one of those movies, I don’t think they’re far wrong. Netflix are well known for commissioning projects that are similar to other stuff people like (reportedly their first-ever original, House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey and produced/directed by David Fincher, came about because statistics showed viewers liked to watch the original BBC series, movies starring Spacey, and movies directed by Fincher), but this feels like one of the most blatant examples I’ve personally seen. Movies like Live by Night and Road to Perdition also came to my mind whilst watching, but it’s not limited to specific examples — it just feels like other movies set in about the same period about the same kind of thing. Well, we might blame Netflix’s data-centric thinking for that, but it’s actually nothing new in Hollywood.

Men of the highway

As a work in its own right, The Highwaymen is a solid period investigative thriller. It’s distinctly lacking the youthful verve and excitement of the ’67 film, which matched the youthfulness of its killer couple, replacing it instead with a slow-ish, world-weary methodicalness, which again matches its central pairing. That could be deliberate, or it could just be another instance of the recurring problem that Netflix-originated content is slower than it needs to be. When police procedurals are slow because they’re focusing on the exacting, gradual accumulation of evidence and data that leads to the downfall of the bad guys, that can be a good thing, and there’s an element of that here; but at other times it just feels a bit tardy. What it lacks is a sense of urgency, which you’d think the hunt for ceaseless murderers would have. We’re told these villains need to be stopped ASAP, and we see them continue to commit crimes as our heroes are still hunting for them, but we never really feel any sense of desperation to get the job done. Hamer and Gault kinda toddle along, as if they know it’s going to take two hours of movie-time to complete their mission so why rush?

It’s not helped by a seeming indecisiveness about what the movie wants to focus on. It’s torn between being a portrait of aged lawmen who may be past their time and a straight-up recounting of the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. The former is a theme it only touches on in fits and spurts, often in scenes that feel shoehorned in just to address that subject. I’m not sure it had much to say about it either. It doesn’t come to the conclusion that the old ways are the best, or that they’re not relevant anymore; or that these guys still have their skills, or that they don’t anymore (early on there’s a scene where Costner realises he isn’t as accurate with a pistol as he used to be; that never comes up again) — they’re old, they’re tired, and… that’s it. As for the investigation, I presume it’s been depicted fairly accurately — the film has the feel of a story that’s been structured and paced this way because it’s based on truth. Of course, as we know from many other “true story” films, that’s a foolhardy assumption to make. Still, the final ambush was staged exactly where it really occurred out of a desire for historical accuracy, so it’s not wholly unreasonable to suggest that extends to the rest of the film.

Gunning for Bonnie and Clyde

One fascinating aspect of this particular case is how much the public were on the side of the criminals, and have been since (when The Highwaymen’s trailer debuted, I saw plenty of comments from disgruntled viewers hoping the film would acknowledge how underhanded the cops were in how they finally got Bonnie and Clyde! As if it somehow wasn’t fair to just shoot dead these crooks who had killed multiple other law enforcement officers, and innocent civilians, without similar fair warning). Perhaps unavoidably, the outlaws’ celebrity is another theme the film touches on, but only loosely. The populous should probably have been terrified of this viciously violent gang, but that they instead exalted them had a lot to do with the social situation at the time, i.e. the Great Depression, where the banks were the enemy, and Bonnie and Clyde did rob banks. Unfortunately, it’s again a thread that’s not fully unravelled; another facet the film notes is interesting but doesn’t bother to do a whole lot with.

Visually, there’s nothing to complain about here. It’s handsomely shot by John Schwartzman, with suitably open vistas that in themselves evoke a less urbanised time, where outlaws might still be hiding in the back of beyond. There are also scenes in towns and cities that clearly had enough budget to create a large-scale feel for the period. The film reportedly cost just under $50 million, the kind of budget movie studios don’t assign anymore, but it shows why it can pay off: this doesn’t need to be a $100 million blockbuster, but it does need enough cash to dress streets and extras for the setting. Netflix are one of the few still prepared to put money into such endeavours, and it is welcome.

Elsewhere, the film’s musical score was one of the main things that reminded me of Road to Perdition, so I was amused when I saw it credited to Thomas Newman, who also composed Perdition. I’ve commented before how I sometimes like his music but other times think he sounds a bit to similar to, well, himself (his work on Skyfall distracted me by sounding like what he did for A Series of Unfortunate Events), so maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise.

On the road to somewhere. Probably Perdition.

Despite all those niggles I’ve listed, The Highwaymen is actually a solid viewing experience. It may not do anything original or execute elements as well as it could have, but Costner and Harrelson are engaging performers to follow around, and the story is inherently interesting enough to hold attention — it may’ve been slower than necessary, but I was never bored. The film has been described in some circles as a “dad movie”, a phrase that was also bandied around about another Netflix original earlier this month, Triple Frontier. I guess it’s being used in a reductive and dismissive sense, but, well, so what? I’m not a dad, nor of the age range being intimated by the expression, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a decent men-on-a-mission movie either.

3 out of 5

The Highwaymen is available on Netflix now.

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Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

2014 #84
John Lee Hancock | 120 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Australia / English | PG / PG-13

Saving Mr. BanksTom Hanks is Walt Disney and Emma Thompson is author P.L. Travers in “The Making of Mary Poppins: The Movie”. Disney has been desperate to turn Travers’ fictional nanny into a movie for years after he made a promise to his daughter; Travers has resisted, but now needs the money. She’s brought to LA to consult on the script, and proceeds to make life miserable for screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songsmiths Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman). At the same time, we see the story of a family in Australia from the eyes of a little girl Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley), as they struggle with the whims of her father (Colin Farrell), a bank manager who’s a little too fond of the bottle. Guess what the connection is!

There’s fun to be had seeing the creation of a classic movie — I’m sure it’s not 100% the honest truth of how it went, but it is based on the tapes Travers insisted were made of the meetings, so it would seem the spirit is faithful. This isn’t a dry “making of” narrative, however, but a lively romp, as the two sides clash over jaunty tunes, characterisation, casting, and made-up words. Whitford brings understated gravitas to the man essentially tasked with giving Travers what she wants while also making a suitably Disney movie. Paul Giamatti turns up as Travers’ LA chauffeur, a role that starts out as bafflingly insignificant before gradually unfurling as one of the film’s most affecting elements.

Hanks not a lotSimilarly, Hanks’ part seems to be little more than a cameo at first, but he steadily appears often enough to make it a supporting role. Reportedly he has perfectly captured many of Disney’s real traits and idiosyncrasies, and who are we to doubt the word of people who knew the man? His performance is not just a shallow, simple impersonation, but there’s not that much meat to Disney’s character arc either.

Instead, the film completely belongs to Emma Thompson. Travers is a complicated woman, a veneer of strictness masking deeper issues. Beneath the comedy of who will win in the battle over the film, there’s an affecting personal drama about the troubled upbringing that led to this human being, and how she’s still dealing with it so many decades later. Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay holds back from being too explicit with regards to Travers’ internal life, but it’s all vividly brought to the screen by Thompson.

In the Australian segments, Colin Farrell’s accent has to be heard to be believed — his regular voice is completely lost inside the character. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the storyline, though it is fundamentally predictable and the intrusions are sometimes unwelcome, interrupting the flow of the main ’60s narrative. Would that story function without them? Is there a better way to structure the telling? I don’t think the answer to either of those questions is “yes”, but I don’t think it’s a “no” either.

Picky PamelaSome will find the story lacking in dirt, particularly when it comes to the portrayal of Disney. But it’s not whitewashed either, and do you really think the Disney Corporation would have allowed a movie to go ahead that depicts their founding father in a negative light? For that, I don’t think it’s as twee as it could have been — there’s definite conflict over what’s being done with Poppins, and, even with the film having turned out to be a solid-gold classic, we often find ourselves sympathising with Travers.

With plenty of humour and fun, a solid emotional heart, a first-rate performance from Thompson, and an array of excellent supporting turns too, Saving Mr. Banks is both a worthy tribute to a classic movie and an enjoyable one in its own right.

5 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.