SXSW Film Q&A: John Lee Hancock on The Highwaymen

Texas director retells the Bonnie and Clyde story from the cops’ view

America’s fascination with outlaws can invert morality. It’s easy to see Bonnie and Clyde as devil-may-care heroes careening through the South and making chumps of John Q. Law. It’s easy to ignore the dead bodies and bank robberies and shattered lives, and the fact they were doomed from day one, themselves.

That’s why The Highwaymen, the latest film from director John Lee Hancock, moves the camera away from the murderous Barrow gang, focusing instead on the cops who took them down.

Hancock was recently inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame for his work as a writer (A Perfect World, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), director (Saving Mr. Banks, The Founder), and writer/director (The Blind Side). With his latest film, the troubled heroes are the two Texas Rangers who led the pursuit and finally orchestrated the deadly ambush in Arcadia, La. Yet this is not a film of heroics: Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) is out and retired, Manny Gault (Woody Harrelson) is almost destitute, and the Rangers have been functionally disbanded as the last overhang of the cowboy days. This is a tragedy of broken old men chasing young outcasts, and there’s nothing noble about that final bloody showdown.

The Highwaymen premieres today at SXSW before a limited theatrical release on March 15 and a Netflix debut on March 29.

Austin Chronicle: The temptation in a Bonnie and Clyde film is to put them front and center, but pretty much until the shoot-out in Arcadia, you hide them or only show them in shadow or at a distance, which means we have to focus on Hamer and Gault and the pursuers and the victims.

John Lee Hancock: It was the plan all along; and also to get the viewer to build up the mythos of Bonnie and Clyde for themselves, along with the people in the movie idolizing them. So hopefully when the reveal comes, and they’re scrawny kids, hopefully it’s a bit of a shocker.

AC: It also means you can see that Hamer and Gault, they’re not stereotypical cops, but two aging men who have been through the ringer.

JLH: Absolutely. The Texas Ranger played by Clint Eastwood in A Perfect World is also kind of damaged goods, toward the end of his career. And by damaged goods, I mean that the thing that age does to you is that it makes you less sure of everything. The things that you’re sure about in your twenties and thirties, you become less sure about in your fifties and sixties.

“They know how this road’s going to end, and how bloody it’s going to be, and they know the weight that it carries on their soul forever and ever.”

But I’m happy that you picked up on that fact that these guys are kind of damaged, because when people hear that this is a movie about the other side and the cops that are chasing down Bonnie and Clyde, they get the wrong-headed idea that, “Oh, it’s going to be glorifying killing Bonnie and Clyde, and we’re all going to cheer at the end, and it’s going to be jingoistic.” It was never going to be that. It’s the lonely journey of two men who have a terrible gift. They’re very good at hunting down and killing people, and in this case it’s a job that has to be done, but it doesn’t make it pleasurable. They know how this road’s going to end, and how bloody it’s going to be, and they know the weight that it carries on their soul forever and ever.

It doesn’t even have to be about Bonnie and Clyde. You can do it about two Texas Rangers hunting anyone, and that terrible gift that they have, and the burden that they carry, to me that’s what the movie is about.

AC: There’s a loop at play here; Kevin Costner’s version of Frank Hamer has more than passing kinship to Eastwood’s Texas Ranger when he played the young rogue in A Perfect World. Was that something you and he were aware of, or discussed, when he came aboard?

JLH: We never talked about it, but I certainly realized it, and I think he does, too. I’ve been able to work with Kevin twice in this specific dramatic arena, because I think he’s built for it, and he’s so good at playing the Frank Hamers of this world. I love his ability to be stoic and quiet, and to communicate a whole lot of what’s going on inside his head. And I loved putting him and Woody together, because Manny Gault in our movie is a character who will talk ad nauseam about how he doesn’t sleep and what bothers him and the weight that he’s carrying on this journey. Kevin’s Frank Hamer is so stoic on this journey, and we find out along the way that he feels it too – he just doesn’t say it out loud.

AC: And then the only person he can talk to about it is Manny.

JLH: People who have been through really, really difficult stuff sometimes can only talk to people who have been through the same really, really difficult stuff. They have to turn it off and go to their families and not talk about it: Put it in a box in a room and only open it every so often, because there’s an ugliness and a darkness that you can’t have with you every day.

AC: There’s something really tragic about the fact that, after the hunt, Manny Gault stayed with the Rangers because he didn’t know what else to do.

JLH: It’s a sad business. There’s no winners in this game, and you come out – at least, I did – feeling sorry for everyone concerned, even Bonnie and Clyde. It’s just an ugly business, and what happens in Arcadia just brings out and shows the worst of humanity and the cult of celebrity. Everything about it leaves a bad taste in your mouth, hopefully.

The Highwaymen

Narrative Feature, Headliners, World Premiere

Sunday, March 10, 6pm, Paramount

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