A cream-colored car pulls slowly into a quiet alley. A woman emerges from a nearby building, and when she sees who is sitting in the car, she gasps and hastens away. She has just caught sight of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the wanted robbers and murderers who have been on the run for two years, since 1931.
But when the woman returns, she is accompanied not by legal authorities or an angry mob, but a throng of adoring fans. Screaming with delight, the people call the felons’ names, reach out to touch them, and ask for autographs.
Such is the scene in the recent Netflix feature, “The Highwaymen.”
Directed by John Lee Hancock, the historical drama follows Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), the two former Texas Rangers who were brought back on the job to nab Bonnie and Clyde. But as that moment with the fawning crowd hints, the film is not just a simple “good guy catches bad guy” story.
Hamer and Gault’s mission is anything but popular. “Some folks are saying Parker and Barrow are heroes,” says a reporter. “They’re calling them Robin Hoods.” As the Rangers roam the streets of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, they see women dressed in the same style as Bonnie Parker. “It’s all the rage,” they observe bleakly.
One Texas official describes them aptly: “cold-blooded killers who are more adored than movie stars.”
How could anyone idolize such people? “The Highwaymen” does a stellar job offering a disturbing but profound answer. It captures the mystery and excitement of Bonnie and Clyde’s legacy.
For most of the film, we hardly see the criminals’ faces. They move in the shadows and drop cigarettes and liquor bottles when and where they please. By the light of streetlights, Bonnie fixes her lipstick while riding shotgun next to her beloved partner in crime.
From a distance, the notion of lawless lovers on the run can be enticing. It urges the people going about their normal lives to indulge in curiosity and fascination with twisted behavior. Before long, violence and evil become popular entertainment.
This temptation, in fact, is far from new. The ancient Romans gave into it regularly at the Circus Maximus, where they watched gladiators slaughter one another and martyrs suffer brutal deaths with as much interest as they would watch a theatrical performance.
We might not have the Circus Maximus or ask for criminals’ autographs, but we cannot say that our society is immune to curiosity of the inhumane. Not only in fictional books and films that overflow with promiscuity and gore, but also in more subtle and real-life ways, we live in a culture that celebrates the intrigue of immoral behavior.
Magazines urge us to devour every juicy detail of the latest scandal or divorce. Countless TV series and clickbait articles spotlight bizarre or disturbing actions, from horrible parenting in child beauty pageants to sickening overindulgence in eating contests.
Not to mention the billion-dollar industry of pornography, whose profit comes directly from the subversion of one of the most intimate and sacred of human abilities.
These opportunities to ogle at another’s rebelliousness is so alluring because we can tell ourselves that we would never do such a thing. “I would never rob or kill people like that!” the Bonnie and Clyde spectators might have said.
And we might say today, “I would never treat my family so heartlessly” or “I would never do such harmful things to my body or someone else’s.” And probably, we won’t. But feeding our disordered curiosities also weakens our consciences. It wears down our defense against injustice and immorality.
Little by little, we normalize it, make excuses for the Bonnies and Clydes of our world, and fall prey to the temptations that really do plague our own lives.
It takes great courage to reign in curiosity and call evil what it is, especially when doing so is unpopular. This is what makes Hamer and Gault such spectacular characters. They are two rough old men who truly know the weight of the world’s sins, and they are committed to restoring justice.
Costner and Harrelson’s phenomenal acting drives the point home. In one gripping scene, Hamer answers a man — who says he would wish “all the luck” to Bonnie and Clyde — with a furious blow.
He reminds the man that the police officer who faced the criminals on Easter Sunday morning was shot in the head before he even had time to load the shells into his gun. It’s a stirring and satisfying moment, in which someone finally confronts illusion with truth.
The Rangers’ dogged pursuit might make one wonder whether they also have lost their grip on human decency. Are they just viewing Bonnie and Clyde as animalistic criminals rather than humans? But their interactions and attitudes throughout the film prove otherwise.
They meet and collaborate with Deputy Sheriff Ted Hinton, Bonnie and Clyde’s childhood friend, and Hamer hears Clyde’s father describe how his son “didn’t have no dark soul” while growing up. They very much understand that “the kids” have families and care about their loved ones.
In fact, their attitude toward Bonnie and Clyde is probably the most sane out of anyone’s, as the conclusion of the film demonstrates. After killing the criminals in the famous roadside ambush, Hamer and Gault watch hoards of people follow the car being towed through the town and roughly tear souvenirs off the corpses’ clothes.
When someone offers Hamer $1,000 for an interview, Hamer turns away in disgusted silence. “Shame on you,” Gault tells the man. The Rangers refuse to take part in anything that makes human crime and death a spectacle.
The behavior throughout the film — both from Bonnie and Clyde and their fan club — makes “The Highwaymen” disconcerting to watch. But it forces viewers to examine themselves, to ask whether they have ever given into the seemingly harmless dangers of curiosity. Such a film is not just entertaining but edifying. The world could use more like it.
Sophia Buono is a writer living in Arlington, Virginia.
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