Movies aren’t allowed to take their time on the big screen anymore.
Describing a film as slow and intimate has become a cinematic death knell as meticulous drama has ventured off the silver screen for greener pastures on television miniseries or streaming services.
A tale about famed criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, for example, has to have any number of shootouts, car chases and suspense in order to make an impact on audiences, right?
Thankfully, director John Lee Hancock doesn’t seem to think so.
His latest feature, “The Highwaymen” made for Netflix, is a deliberately paced, moderate film that keeps the infamous Bonnie and Clyde on the fringes.
Audiences rarely get more than a glimpse of high heels and tommy-guns because for once, the focus isn’t on the criminals.
Screenwriter John Fusco puts viewers squarely in the weathered shoes of retired Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, pulled back into the line of duty as a state-sanctioned vigilante put on Bonnie and Clyde’s trail two years into their cross country crime spree.
As the film’s title implies, “The Highwaymen” becomes a road movie of sorts, positioning this modern Western of sorts as a slow journey towards inevitability and a hail of gunfire.
As Hamer, Kevin Costner evokes early John Wayne mixed with late Clint Eastwood for a determined, yet introspective performance.
Using as few words as possible, Costner maximizes their impact both in what Hamer says and, more importantly, how Hamer says it in a verbal and non-verbal sense.
It’s easy to feel the road wearing on Hamer’s psyche as Costner carries the burden of being a sanctioned killer of men. There’s a quiet intensity to his performance that is striking the closer viewers grow towards Hamer.
Costner is matched step for step by a wonderful turn from Woody Harrelson as Hamer’s partner in the hunt, Maney Gault.
Harrelson is able to bring a modicum of levity to a film in desperate need of emotional release while still maintaining an equal footing with Costner dramatically.
He is able to keep Maney’s bout with alcoholism a key part of the character without making it the entire character, and a key monologue late in the film may prove to be Harrelson’s best work in at least five years.
While the film occasionally stumbles out of the starting block, “The Highwaymen” is riveting in its slow-burn once both leads are on the chase and their balance of comfort amidst unease with each other is remarkable.
Hancock’s film also boasts a solid supporting cast led most notably by Oscar winner Kathy Bates as Texas governor ‘Ma’ Ferguson.
Cinematographer John Schwartzman brings a vivid eye for the near-center frame, putting the action of a scene just off from where it would be traditionally to create an unique perspective on a familiar tale.
The heightened palette of the cinematography is striking against the wonderful production design from Michael Corenblith and his team that firmly places “The Highwaymen” in the 1930s while keeping a modern aesthetic that’s reminiscent to Michael Mann’s similar, yet superior John Dillinger film “Public Enemies.”
Fusco’s screenplay is often far too exacting for the tone Hancock has established, with a tell, don’t show style of dialogue that oversimplifies the narrative for its audience.
When Fusco slows the tempo down to match the film’s moderate pace, Costner and Harrelson are able to deliver dynamic, compelling performances both on the surface and in the subtext.
“The Highwaymen” is a testament to the great value two talented actors given the time and space to develop character can be to cinema.
A somber, yet relentless film, “The Highwaymen” perfectly pairs Costner and Harrelson for a classic modern Western worth checking out.