“Man Machine, pseudo human being
Man Machine, super human being”
—“The Man Machine” by Kraftwerk
“Hey, come on try a little
Nothing is forever
There’s got to be something better than
In the middle
But me and Cinderella
We put it all together
We can drive it home
With one headlight”
—“One Headlight” by The Wallflowers
Robert Harmon is a true deep-cut director but is one of those visionaries who has a keen eye for the construction of the road film. Not road trip film, but road film. The Mad Max films are road films. Their action, character development, and narrative are built on metal, rubber, open spaces, and speed. The Sure Thing and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles are road trip films where the road is largely setting. Most only know Harmon—if they know him at all—for his 1986 classic, The Hitcher. My parents’ generation might know him (though probably not his name) for the Stone Cold series of television films he directed starring Tom Selleck. Almost no one has heard of his 21st century underground masterpiece, Highwaymen, which pits Jesus against half-man-half-1972-Cadillac-Fleetwood-El-Dorado-Coupe Colm Feore.
And, by Jesus, I mean Jim Caviezel, the coolest Jesus since Willem Dafoe. Don’t @ me.
What makes Highwaymen work is how it builds on the skeleton of the traditional revenge narrative. Rennie Cray (Caviezel) is searching for the man who ran down his wife while they were on vacation. The man aimed for her. Swerved into her. Forcing her flesh and blood to mix into metal with the results of oil and water. Rennie witnessed it—and tried to save her—from their roadside motel balcony. The man who committed the hit and run was able to avoid prosecution because he was able to explain it away as an accident and that he had fled the scene because Rennie was coming after him.
And, to be fair, he was. He did. He slammed into the driver’s side of the man’s car, maiming him significantly. He did not die, however, and the doctors put him back together with a more cohesive blend of flesh and metal. The man’s name is Fargo. He had killed three women before Rennie’s wife in similar hit and runs. He has continued to kill women with his El Dorado—thousands of miles apart—which has one headlight missing. He’s a psychopath who is deeply broken, physically and psychologically. He finds people, stalks them, and then eventually runs them down. He has engineered his car to allow for his disabilities to the point that one might be forgiven for asking when the man ends and the car begins. The El Dorado has become an extension of his being. He is becoming machine. Increasingly mechanized, simultaneously more than human and less than human.
Rennie, meanwhile, drives throughout the country tracking Fargo down, hoping for retribution. That final chance to end the life of the man who killed his wife. Rennie drives an orange ’68 Plymouth Barracuda 426 Hemi. It’s a beautifully compact and rugged looking car. He, too, fixes his car whenever he has run-ins with Fargo or regular maintenance by stealing tires and parts from junkyards around the country. Both men are inextricably tied to their cars. Both have a relationship with the machine and these distinct relationships are what define their characters throughout the film.
And this relationship to their machines links them together in a twisted bond. They need each other. Fargo needs to be recognized for the havoc he wreaks and Rennie needs to know that the object of his fury remains out there for him, and only him, to find…and destroy. There’s a scene close to the beginning of the film that says so much without any dialogue. Rennie is driving through beautiful pastures and suddenly brakes and rolls back to where a side road is and turns onto it. The road leads to an abandoned barn and Rennie figures that Fargo has been there. He walks inside and finds an old radiator—which he tests the temperature of to see how recently it had been replaced—and a pool of viscous liquid. In most films, the development of this scene would lead us to believe the liquid is blood. Rennie, squats, dips his finger in the substance, smells it, tastes and then spits. It’s Fargo’s life blood. The oil of his 72′ El Dorado. Fargo no longer bleeds, but leaks. It’s small details like these where Harmon makes his most philosophical rumination about the dichotomies of man and machine.
Enter the variables of the story: Molly Poole (played by the beautiful Rhona Mitra) and Will Macklin (played by all-time great, Frankie Faison). Molly, we learn, lost her whole family in a car wreck when she was young and she loses her friend to Fargo who runs her down and almost kills Molly as well. She was his first mistake. Will Macklin is the humble traffic investigator who happens upon this duel when he is called in to investigate the “accident” that took the life of Molly’s friend. (This character made me look into becoming a traffic investigator for a short time when I was younger). Molly becomes the center of Fargo’s obsession and Rennie saves her from another attempt to kill her. Macklin is piecing it all together with his “pencil and tape measure.”
On the surface and according to the general critical appraisal, this film seems rather by rote, but how it builds its characters is fascinating and anything but simplistic. We naturally want to root for Rennie—he is Jesus after all—but we quickly find out after he saves Molly that his obsession is killing Fargo, singularly. Fargo talks to Rennie on the CB radio and tells him to bring Molly to him so that he can have another shot at Fargo. Fargo ends his crackling message with “a few thousand more miles of this and you’ll become just like me.” Molly, and by extension, the audience are put on edge by Rennie’s confirmation of Fargo’s request and the look on his face. She is a pawn to him. As they interact, she asks if she is going to die and he responds with silence. In these spaces, the audience should be a little hesitant about putting all their trust in Rennie to be the savior of the film. The by-the-book Macklin becomes the only person we can actually trust to put actual justice and the salvation of life front and center.
Most of the film is cat and mouse once the trap is initially set. Rennie and Fargo constantly checking each other as the audience holds their breath for the checkmate. We find out that Rennie was a doctor who went to prison for the collision with Fargo and is now devoting his whole being to revenge. Fargo was an insurance adjuster, mostly automobile. The toll of seeing crash sites with the twisted metal and ragged doll bodies strewn about the asphalt warped him to where he got a taste for it. He liked the art of highway alchemy, constantly furthering the perfect chemistry of steel and flesh on others and himself. One wonders if the drive to complete mechanization is a subconscious avoidance of guilt and reckoning with life’s continual bending towards justice. If Fargo becomes fully machine, then—until the singularity happens, anyways—there is no longer any humanity at which to point the grand divine finger of justice. He is just covering himself with body panels, radiators, wheels, and lights, instead of a fig leaf.
Rennie, though, is still fully human, fully intact physically. Yet he is just as connected to his Barracuda. He imparts his need for vengeance through its fuel lines. It drives him so it drives his car. His mechanization is spiritual. The focuses of both Rennie and Fargo are the same: death. The symptoms are different, but the disease is the same. He let Fargo steal his life and joy by seeking the justice of man over the more perfect justice of his Creator. Between the two men, Rennie may be the character who is in more danger. Fargo has accepted his being fully mechanized, quite literally. Rennie doesn’t recognize his state, he is blinded by rage and grief. Like Fargo told him, many more miles of this and Rennie may too seek to become his car. And Fargo may not be enough at that point.
Molly is a fighter, however. Her relationship to the machine is distinct from Rennie and Fargo. She never learned to drive, yet she is more aware and vigilant as a passenger than most drivers are. She sees the destruction of the soul that can take place with this physical highway alchemy. She has the scars to prove it. Yet at no point do we see her giving up on life or seeking to take justice into her own hands—at least until the final showdown of the film, but then it’s out of defense. She is fearful for sure, but it never seems like she succumbs to that fear. She isn’t powerless, but she is reminded by the scars that she is merely human.
Macklin is perhaps the closest to a “typical” person in the film and yet he is the observer. He drives, but has a distinction between himself and his car, between man and machine. He does not buy into Fargo’s attempt to allay justice. He still believes that behind a machine is always a human will with all its flaws and foibles. He, also, doesn’t buy into Rennie’s singular need to get revenge. As he says to Molly, he’s never killed anyone or shot a gun. He uses a pencil and tape measurer. He investigates and attempts to find the truth. As he is brought into this motorized world of murder, his intent is to protect Molly and to stop Fargo and, if he can figure out Rennie’s angle, stop him if his will does not align with the wheels of institutionalized justice.
Each of our characters’ modus operandi are played out in the film’s finale on the asphalt in front of the same hotel where Rennie’s wife was run down, where Fargo began his transition to machine. The El Dorado and the Barracuda which have become distinct characters in the film finally have their duel. Molly caught between them. Macklin finally realizing the truth—no matter how strange it is—for the first time. Something is about to take place. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether it is justice, vengeance, highway alchemy, or something even deeper and more mystical.
Like Harmon’s The Hitcher, Highwaymen explores the nature of the justice of men on the stage of wide-open spaces where asphalt weaves like a spider web through this nation’s body. These veins demand blood. Themselves an institutionalized machine built on the backs of men, connecting communities together, but at a human cost. It’s machines all the way down. To be human in these spaces is a balancing act. Like I have written about before, there is little that distinguishes us from each other whether “good” or “bad.” Rennie and Fargo have only a hair’s difference between them. Fargo knows that if Rennie is successful in ending his terror, Rennie will forever be changed. He will become more like Fargo than even he knows in the name of “justice.” Just like John Ryder knew that Jim Halsey would have to become “the hitcher” in order to kill “the hitcher,” there is a cost to the justice of man and it is self-imposed, because justice was never meant to be the work of man, but of God. As much gray as we have in this world, the commandment, “thou shalt not kill,” is absolute for a reason. It’s the character of God after all. When humanity takes justice into their own hands, they become less than what they were meant to be. They become like the world, mechanized and institutionalized.
Harmon, whether he placed these themes intentionally in his films or not, recognizes that the justice of man is nothing more than turning the gears of the world forward. The world knows little of true justice, forgiveness, mercy, and love. Highwaymen exposes the world for what it is. A machine intending to devour humanity as grist for its gears, fueling itself to its inevitable end.