A "Bonnie and Clyde" Trilogy
“The Highwaymen” (2019) is a Netflix original film based on the true story of Bonnie and Clyde – and the Texas Rangers who killed them. Viewers follow Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, portrayed by Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, respectively, as they track down the infamous couple.
While Arthur Penn’s 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde” gave viewers a cinematic look at the story from the perspective of the notorious couple, this new film provides opportunity to see Bonnie and Clyde from the standpoint of the law.
In her film review for The Wrap, Candice Frederick notes the film is an attempt at a dignified recount of the Texas Rangers’ role in the case:
… Frank’s real-life widow sued the studio after the release of the 1967 film “Bonnie & Clyde,” claiming it dumbed him down for entertainment. Everyone is trying to prove something to themselves and others and it all comes down to validation and, perhaps even more poignantly, vindication.
Movies can glamorize killers and turn fact into fiction – or reveal information that had been previously omitted from the media. “The Highwayman” intercuts original film footage and photography to display the vey real fanfare that followed the couple’s deaths, in addition to epilogue text.
Using the media to expose a truth is manipulative; viewers often believes one perspective is “the” truth. How do you dissuade the masses from support of one perspective that has been long-held as “the truth”? Attack the mode by which this story was communicated – the media attacks itself.
The Highwaymen directly exposes truths through stock footage and historical facts, but its subliminal messaging ties the film to a larger commentary on media manipulation – as part of a trilogy.
Oliver Stone’s 1994 film “Natural Born Killers” follows two lovers from traumatic childhood homes as they seek happiness and love – and kill anyone who gets in their way. The two are glorified in the media; even media agents want the life they see hyped on TV.
“Natural Born Killers” uses the framework of Bonnie and Clyde’s story as a commentary on mass media manipulation. The three films work together as a trilogy, using Bonnie and Clyde as a framework for the greater commentary on perception, asking: is media our reality?
The common thread between the later two films is actor Woody Harrelson, who plays both the “Clyde” character in “Natural Born Killers,” as well as a Texas Ranger in “The Highwaymen.” While playing contrasting roles, he is the sympathetic character in each film. Viewers feel sympathy for each character because the films themselves give us insight into the lives, thoughts, feelings and personal histories of each character. Each movie is written and structured in such a way as to appeal to the viewer’s emotions: they want us to root for them.
Each film within the trilogy exposes – or bluntly displays – the ways in which media change our perception, or encourage and persuade a desired reaction. This is similar to the way in which media appeals to a viewer’s emotions, turning them from viewer to consumer. This overarching idea is, however, only apparent when viewing the three films as part of the trilogy, making the trilogy an entity unto its own. It is a paradox: in order to see this larger message, a viewer must consume these three films.
The trilogy as a whole therefore acts as its own self-reflexive example of media manipulation, proving its point through the eyes of each and every viewer.