“Who are you fellas?” Ray Hamilton asks.
“We’re the bad guys,” answers Frank Hamer.
This exchange takes place in the Netflix film The Highwaymen as Hamer, played by Kevin Costner, and Woody Harrelson’s Maney Gault pursue Bonnie and Clyde.
There’s something fascinating about the saga of Bonnie and Clyde. This pair, both dead by 26, rambled around the central United States for two years, racking up over a hundred felonies and a staggering body count. Even in their lifetimes, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were romanticized and given the bizarre sort of celebrity treatment that America sometimes accords to those who are clearly not a benefit to society.
A great deal has been made over the years about the ambush that brought this pair down. When you cast a young Warren Beatty and a young Faye Dunaway, which was the lineup in the 1967 film, you aren’t looking to portray them as a true menace to society. Any realistic depiction of the shooting will look like overkill. The bullet-riddled Ford is a chilling icon, which some would present to suggest that the encounter was barbarous and excessive, but these were heavily armed people who had reportedly killed nine law officers already.
The Netflix film does not glamorize the pair. On the other hand, the two retired Texas Rangers, Costner and Harrelson, do not compare with Costner’s earlier role as Eliot Ness. These guys were not untouchable. Forced by circumstances and their profession to face the savagery of human life, they each managed to keep moving forward while haunted by past events.
Harrelson told of an encounter, early in his career, when he inadvertently shot a 13-year-old while confronting an incredibly dangerous gang of outlaws. “I still see his face,” Harrelson’s character says, yet he accepts that the violent encounter was necessary. Both men pursue the work because it has to be done.
In a sinful and violent world, somebody has to step up and do the unpleasant things that keep society from devolving into chaos. In saying that, I sound like Colonel Jessup from A Few Good Men:
Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom.
Hamer and Gault are portrayed as guarding those walls. They do it well, but we shouldn’t for a moment believe that stepping up to do these things will leave the person unscathed. They put down a couple of dangerous characters but leave others running free. Still more will arise down the road.
The problem of evil, which The Highwaymen does an admirable job of portraying, is that it cannot be ended by human means. So long as we inhabit the flesh, we’ll be dogged by sin:
So then, brothers and sisters, we are not obligated to the flesh to live according to the flesh, because if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.–Romans 8:12-13
We shouldn’t be surprised that Netflix didn’t provide that answer for the problem, but at least they didn’t make heroes of the criminals.