The Newton Boys
Directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich, Vincent D'Onofrio, Dwight Yoakam, Julianna Margulies, Chloe Webb, Charles Gunning, Bo Hopkins, Luke Askew. (1998, PG-13, 122 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 27, 1998
As pictured here, the real-life clan of bank robbers who were active during the post WWI-period and known as the Newton Boys were down-home Texas farmboys just looking to grab themselves some of the Twenties roar before it left them in the dust. A lovingly recreated period piece, The Newton Boys covers a five-year span from 1919-1924 during which time the gang had the dubious distinction of being the country's most successful group of bank robbers, capping their careers with a mail-train robbery whose estimated $3 million haul was the largest theft of its kind to date. Part Western, part crime story, and part true family saga, The Newton Boys blurs the standard generic boundaries in its quest to tell a uniquely American story about the ambitions of society's have-nots and the quiet passage of eras. Indeed the film opens up with an old-timey iris-out shot that recalls the look of movies from the early decades of the century, and concludes in marked contrast with a mesmerizing coda of actual documentary footage that includes the last of the siblings chatting up Johnny Carson amid the glitz of a 1980 Tonight Show appearance. All in all, the gang was an honorable bunch who never killed anyone, and their story tells more about the rationalizations these bank robbers make for their chosen profession, the ways in which technology advances in counterpoint to new criminal methodologies, and the ominous portents of corrupt justice systems and celebrity trials of the future. The themes are undeniably rich and they seize our imagination to a much greater degree than the characters themselves. The actors are all excellent (McConaughey delivers his best work to date, Ulrich and Hawke both shine, Yoakam is a break-out revelation -- of the gang, only the usually remarkable D'Onofrio seems less vivid than we might ordinarily expect); they seem believable as brothers (except, of course, for Yoakam, who plays Brent Glasscock, the nitroglycerin expert and squirrely Fifth Beatle to the four Newton brothers). As characters, however, these figures just don't seem to have enough meat on their bones to sustain our interest beyond the two hours it takes for the movie to run its course. Each character has a couple of traits to play but never emerges as a fully developed person. The women in the story (played by Margulies and Webb) fare worse, having little to do but play the “love interest.” Nevertheless, The Newton Boys sparks to life in numerous other ways -- in its attention to period detail, in its elegant camerawork, in segments such as the breathtaking centerpiece montage that recounts a string of bank robberies, in the beguiling music score, and in the closing courtroom scenes that give a sense of the gang's interaction with regular folks and the institutions of state. What The Newton Boys lacks in dramatic definition, it more than compensates for with its underlying intelligence and visual luster.