Watching The Highwaymen feels like watching The Shawshank Redemption mixed with Road to Perdition—minus the meaningful story. William Sadler is there. The muted grays and desaturated landscapes are there. Even Thomas Newman is there, wielding the baton that transports us with sweeping Depression-era motifs. Yet despite all this, we still leave the experience wondering what it all meant.
Woody Harrelson, as former Texas Ranger Marney Gault is excellent—there’s nothing better than Woody in a passenger seat verbally sparring with the Main Character driving both car and story. This time it’s Kevin Costner, not Matthew McConaughey, behind the wheel. Regardless of his work playing Wyatt Earp, Costner portraying legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer is no small feat—particularly, when his character is given so little to work with in the film.
Hamer is a complete mystery. As Protagonist, he performs his functions within the Overall Story Throughline well. He pursues Bonnie and Clyde, while also considering the duo’s next rest stop. But as the closest thing to the Main Character within The Highwaymen, Hamer is an empty vessel.
There is a significant difference between the objective requirements of Plot and the subjective perspectives afforded by characters. The plot of a story takes care of the objective nature of the conflict, or how They see things. The Main Character shows us how I see conflict—a decidedly subjective point-of-view. The juxtaposition between the two is essential as this is where we, as the Audience, appreciate the meaning.
Without it, we are lost.
Halfway through the film, we discover 16 bullets remain lodged in Hamer’s body. Why wait so long to reveal personal issues that would bring us closer to his experience? We know how those bullets got there and learn later why (Hamer is a bit uncompromising when it comes to justice), but we never learn what it feels like to deal with that emotional weight. Hamer, and subsequently the story, never let us in.
Without someone to empathize with, the film becomes merely a history lesson.
Gault’s paradigm shift from hesitation to confrontation is excellent, but procedural at best. Without that clear emotional attachment to a personally held point-of-view, the switch is mechanical—an effect of what stories are supposed to do, rather than what this story should do.
The Highwaymen is a missed opportunity. Great subject matter. Great cast. Great composer and a great screenwriter. Unfortunately, the experience lacks the emotional connection needed to make this anything more than a very slick documentary.