Road Games: In Praise of Highwaymen (2004)

Buckle up — Matty goes for a spin with Robert Harmon’s criminally neglected killer thriller. 

The open road is a powerful cinematic image. Not only do shots of yellow lines on asphalt look lovely, they’re often used to represent feelings and themes as diverse as freedom and discovery, and, in HIGHWAYMEN (2004), isolation, loneliness, obsession, and the inability to move on. Having witnessed his wife’s slaughter, Rennie Cray (Jim Caviezel, two roles prior to, erm, ‘finding Jesus’ in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004)) is the embodiment of such emotions and ideas. His life is a giant ring road; a purgatorial drift as he cruises state to state looking for his mrs’ killer. Cray knows who he is: as a flashback reveals, after seeing his wife get splattered by a car outside a motel, Cray got straight into his own vehicle, chased the driver down, and smashed into him. It was a spur of the moment, knee-jerk reaction but Cray meant to do it. As he hurtled towards him, Cray was staring right at him. He wanted to make the bastard responsible for killing his beloved pay. But his revenge-driven actions had consequences. They cost Cray his job as a doctor, and they resulted in him serving three years inside for aggravated assault. And for his wife’s killer — an insurance salesman called James Fargo (Colm Feore) — they turned him into a monster. Well, more of a monster than he was already… 

Despite convincing authorities that it was a hit and run accident, Fargo was a serial killer. Detailed via some crisp exposition, Fargo had murdered three other women before Cray’s wife, running all of them over. As Macklin (Frankie Faison), the traffic investigator who gets caught up in Cray’s crusade, succinctly puts it, Fargo “leaves no fingerprints, no DNA and drives off in [his] murder weapon”. To say much more about Fargo would ruin one of Highwaymen’s greatest pleasures — that being the quiet, contemplative nature of Craig Mitchell and Hans Bauer’s tightly written but achingly melancholic screenplay; a work that drip feeds information, letting us piece together the rich backstories of both Fargo and Cray bit by bit. They’re men consumed by personal missions, at once different yet frighteningly similar, tethered in an eternal conflict that’s emphasised by the empty stretches of tarmac they circle night after night. 

However, as spoiler-y as it may be, the actual physical appearance of Fargo warrants — nay, demands — discussion as it’s the very essence of Highwaymen. Hidden behind the wheel of his modified, pepper green 1972 Cadillac El Dorado for the bulk of the film’s duration, glimpses of Fargo’s mangled body tease a nightmarish figure: he’s a jarring mass of prosthetic limbs, leather straps, and metallic braces. He’s the personification of the desolate junkyards and barren industrial estates we’re shown in Highwaymen’s numerous slick vistas, which are lensed with chilly ambiance by cinematographer Rene Ohashi. A pile of scrap and machinery in human form.

His full reveal as we head towards Highwaymen’s rollicking finale is a striking, eerie scene of sphincter-twitching discomfort. Played with tremendous icey menace by Feore (who, suitably, possesses the finest steely voice this side of Peter Weller), Fargo is a scrawny and balding middle-aged weirdo whose predatorial vibe is augmented by the crude DIY surgery he uses to patch himself up; a creep made creepier by the fact he’s literally transformed himself into something so deeply abnormal to behold. Each of his moderations serve a purpose too. They bring him closer and closer to completely fusing with his growling, shark-ish car, a killer and his weapon, indivisible. Because as homicidal and as upsetting a sight the milk-eyed Fargo is, detached from his motor, he’s a pathetic specimen. Bound to an electric wheelchair that slides in and out of his Cadillac’s driver’s seat, the best summation of the vehicle-less Fargo comes from Cray, who describes him as “a slug without his shell” and states that Fargo’s body is his car.

“Stop his car, stop him,” Cray asserts, hinting at the crux of Mitchell and Bauer’s narrative.

Highwaymen is a story of broken people. In their own way, Cray and the film’s damsel-in-distress, Fargo’s sole surviving victim, Molly (Rhona Mitra), are as damaged as Fargo — a pair of lost souls seeking a connection as meaningful as that which Fargo has to his gas-guzzling death chariot. Cray and Molly are overcome with grief: Cray for his wife, Molly for her family (in a conceptually appropriate flourish, they died in a car crash when she was a child). A couple of deep-focused close-ups when they meet proper after a group therapy session heighten their inner solitude, each of them framed singularly within Highwaymen’s gorgeous 2.35:1 frame. Sure, other characters float into Highwaymen, but they’re typically meat for Fargo’s grinder, leaving Cray and Molly to strike a perpetually uneasy alliance of protector and bait as she becomes an unwitting pawn in Cray and Fargo’s road games.

Indeed, if Highwaymen’s mix of stylistic pizzazz, arty soul-searching, bone-breaking vehicular carnage (kudos to stunt coordinators Jamie Jones and Tanner Gill), and cat n’ mouse thrills seems familiar, you wouldn’t be wrong: it was directed by Robert Harmon, who’d mined similar mood-driven territory nearly twenty years earlier with The Hitcher (1986). Interestingly, post The Hitcher, Harmon had passed on directing the epoch-making erotic thriller Fatal Attraction (1987), and did the same with Highwaymen when Mitchell and Bauer’s script first landed on his desk. By chance, Highwaymen’s script fell into Harmon’s lap again several years later, as the helmer was wrapping They (2002) — a middling supernatural shocker that crumbled amidst interference from its distributors, Dimension Films (quelle surprise). Reading Highwaymen again, suddenly, it clicked: Harmon realised he could fashion a compelling dark action movie. Drawing influence from John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971), and the photography of Michael Kenna, Harmon did just that: Highwaymen is a gritty and intense experience that excites and entrances in roughly equal measure. Harmon directs the hell out of it, and it’s easily on par with his aforementioned Rutger Hauer-starring horror classic — even with the forty-five minutes of producer-imposed snips that cut it down from over two hours to seventy-seven minutes. Not that you’d be able to tell, mind: there’s no loose ends or flubbed beats. The cuts were for pacing and the finished version of Highwaymen is as tight as a drum. 

Originally slated to open in a wide theatrical release Stateside via New Line on the 29th August 2003, Highwaymen was delayed until the 13th February 2004, when it was demoted to a limited run in Southwestern territories. Highwaymen dropped here in the U.K. on 2nd July 2004, where it received glowing reviews in the News of the World and Nuts Magazine (remember them?) before quietly schlepping to DVD and, then, relative obscurity. Thankfully, as of this writing, it’s on Amazon Prime, awaiting the rediscovery it’s oh-so in need of. 

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