How amazing is the myth-immolating story of Frank Hamer, the Texas Ranger who came out of retirement to nip Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow's interstate binge of brutality in the bud? So amazing that it originally starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford. The duo signed on convinced that the project offered the perfect vehicle for a final collaboration.
Patience, they say, is a virtue. Director John Lee Hancock (The Founder) and Vermont-based screenwriter John Fusco (Thunderheart) have been virtuous for the past 16 years. When Newman became too ill to complete the picture, they didn't succumb to self-pity, develop drug problems or become hedge fund managers. They patiently waited for opportunity to knock again. It did.
This time it brought Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson to the project, and that was probably for the best. Nobody's reuniting or saying a sentimental screen farewell here. To the contrary, the two leads have never worked together — not that you'd guess. Writer, director and stars are at the peak of their powers. The result is an amazing story finally told in the amazing movie it deserves.
Virtually everything you know about Bonnie and Clyde is a fabrication. The filmmakers get to set the record straight courtesy of Netflix. Their film's been given a theatrical run in key markets (Los Angeles, New York and, thanks to Fusco, Burlington) before its March 29 streaming premiere.
It may have appeared in recent decades that Costner was growing older. In reality, the actor has been growing into one of the seminal roles of his career. Like Eliot Ness, Wyatt Earp and Jim Garrison in JFK, Frank Hamer was a larger-than-life man of the law. A uniquely American breed of one. The kind Costner plays more convincingly than almost anyone else.
It's 1934. Parker and Barrow have wreaked havoc across Texas and neighboring states for three years, and Gov. Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) decides it's time to halt their reign of random violence. At the urging of her staff, she takes the legendary Ranger out of mothballs and gives him carte blanche to get the job done.
The first stop is a gun shop. Hamer walks out with enough firepower to take over a small country. The next is the dilapidated home of his dilapidated friend Maney Gault, a haunted, heavy-drinking ex-Ranger played to perfection by Harrelson.
The script is a graceful feat of factual restoration. Most of us know these killers through Arthur Penn's 1967 hit Bonnie and Clyde, which glamorized them into misunderstood Robin Hoods. What really happened bore as little resemblance to that account as the real Bonnie and Clyde did to Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.
As Hancock's restrained, methodical movie reveals, the couple weren't bank robbers so much as penny-ante sociopaths. They stole from mom-and-pop stores. They took cash from gas station tills at gunpoint. For kicks, they'd pull over, wait for police to offer assistance and then gun them down in cold blood.
Hamer is an old-fashioned manhunting machine disgusted at the press for turning the pair into celebrities to sell papers. It's a great, growling performance elevated by subtle shifts in tone and a palpable sense of righteousness. The kind Costner was born to give.
"I always liked to hear about the old-timers," Tommy Lee Jones says of fellow sheriffs in No Country for Old Men. The Highwaymen shares a good deal of DNA with that classic. Hamer was an unrepentant old-timer, an authentic American hero. It's time we heard about him.