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On impulse, I watched a recent Netflix-only movie the other night. This was a historically-based dramatization of the two Texas Rangers who took down Bonnie and Clyde in 1934. The Highwaymen stars Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as said lawmen, Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, respectively.

One of the drawbacks of Netflix original features is that there is a shortage of non-biased reviews. The Highwaymen was released, briefly, to theaters but it is primarily meant as an offering on Netflix streaming. That means it doesn’t have the critical write-ups in your usual media outlets that theatrical releases get. It also means it won’t have the star-based ratings that Netflix DVD movies get. So one has to go into the film cold, based mostly on the trailer, a trailer which Netflix helpfully shoves in your face as you’re trying to find out where you left off on that TV series you’re watching.

Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where most of the best scenes have been stuffed into the trailer. The preview did make it look good and, on top of that, it certainly boasts some star power, going pretty deep into the supporting cast, mind you. Stretch that trailer out to over 2 hours, though, and flaws become apparent. The construction is very formulaic and there are long stretches of dialog that don’t seem to advance anything story-wise.

I believe I watched both the Faye Dunaway/Warren Beaty classic version as well as the A&E mini-series of about six years ago. I’d like to bring them up for comparable treatments of the same subject, but I really don’t remember either version of the Bonnie and Clyde story all that well. I do have a record of the first, as I rented the Netflix disc and so recorded my star count. The second, I think, I watched when it came out on cable. In any case, I can’t see a record that I rented it. What memories vaguely remain all generate about the same feeling from me; not horrible but nothing stellar. Even the 1967 film, which tends to get rave reviews, I just didn’t love. While I don’t remember why, I think I took issue with its 1960s vibe.

This new movie may have been better if it had been edited to be shorter. Or perhaps it needed some story beyond the one that was there*. However, I’ll give it some credit where due.

I was a little surprised to see Kathy Bates playing the governor of Texas as I had no idea that the Governor of Texas in 1934 was a woman. Governor M. A. “Ma” Ferguson was the first female to govern Texas and only the second female to be a governor of a U.S. State. If you were surprised, like I was, you might be less surprised to learn that it took until 1975 for a state (Connecticut) to elect a woman to the Governor’s office who was not the wife or widow of a previous governor of the same state. Ma Ferguson ran when her husband, James Ferguson, was impeached and convicted and so no longer eligible for reelection. In the film she is shown as a powerful executive. While I don’t know the veracity of that portrayal, it was well known that a vote for the Missus was really a vote to continue the term of her husband. Indeed the accusations of corruption continued into Ma Ferguson’s two terms. She is also credited with publicly stating that “[i]f English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas,” although the origin of the phrase (1880s) predates her.

The other interesting aspect of this movie is the avoidance of showing either Bonnie or Clyde’s faces while they commit their crimes. There may be one or two exceptions during the main body of the film. The rule is also broken by extensive facial shots after they have been killed. I interpret this as making a statement which counters that of the press at the time (and since, including films like the 60s classic) which glorified the crimes of the duo and made them into celebrities. It is clearly a theme of the film to criticize this glorification. I’m not sure how well it works when done through dialog, as it seems, perhaps, a bit too obvious. The no-faces technique, on the other hand, is particularly striking.

In the end, I’ll give this movie a rating of “ho hum.” Not a total waste of time to watch, but nothing I would have gone out of my way to see had I known what I was getting into. It is easy for Netflix to sell one on a featured movie, particularly given the way it can seize your attention while you are browsing for something to watch. This slightly-disappointed experience means I’m even less likely to bite on the next “Netflix Original” that looks like it should be a must watch. That said, I’m probably still going to watch Polar.

*That “story” seems to be the one where the two Texas rangers are haunted by the men that they’ve killed over the years. In particular, they are addressing the morality of going into an encounter knowing you intend to kill the perpetrators rather than just arrest them.