Probably every film director itches to make a western, so let's be thankful that, with The Newton Boys, Austin's Richard Linklater has scratched his itch. Now he can go back to making movies about subjects he has some genuine feeling for.
Linklater should not be begrudged his chance to "stretch." But he doesn't bring his best gifts to the western form. At his most original, in such movies as 1991's Slacker and long stretches of '95's Before Sunrise, Linklater has an allusive, hypnotic style; he tells stories in a way that seems particularly his own and yet also expresses the dissociated funk of modern youth.
He's probably the most talented of the thirtysomething generation of filmmakers, but his last movie, last year's adaptation of Eric Bogosian's play SubUrbia, seemed like a Linklater parody -- it was all anomie. So it makes sense he would want to break out of the slacker doldrums with a movie like The Newton Boys, which attempts to be a folkish yarn about the real-life Newton brothers, who, over the course of 19191924, had a rip-roaring time robbing banks. They were the most successful bank heisters in American history, culminating in a $3 million mail-train job outside Chicago that ultimately put them in jail. But because they were charmers and managed never to kill anybody in the course of their careers, they didn't rot in prison. All were out within eight years and went on to long, crime-free lives.
The lucky fact that they didn't kill anybody probably accounts for Linklater's rather blithely rollicking tone. The brothers -- Willis (Matthew McConaughey), Jess (Ethan Hawke), Dock (Vincent D'Onofrio) and the youngest, Joe (Skeet Ulrich) -- emerge as playful scamps. What one misses from The Newton Boys is any sense of how narrow the gap is between what happened and what might have happened.
The Newton boys grew up as poor Texas cotton farmers who quickly learned just how easy it is to rob small-town, mostly weakly guarded banks. They crisscross the South and Midwest racking up an impressive number of scores, but their real goal, held by the clan's eldest, Willis, is to cash in their booty for a stake in the oil business. Linklater and his co-screenwriters Claude Stanush and Clark Lee Walker connect the boys to the passing of the Old West and the rise of the business class -- they're farmers who want to be techno-tycoons -- but only halfheartedly. Such sociological loaminess is far too rich for the modest weed garden Linklater has cultivated.
Linklater identifies with the boys in the most simple-minded of ways. He buys without irony their rationale for thievery -- that the banks are insured anyway, and insurance companies are the biggest crooks of all. It's one thing for the boys to believe they're just little thieves stealing from big thieves. But why doesn't Linklater ever show us how some scrambling farmer not unlike one of the Newtons might feel about having his life savings filched? There's something deeply vapid about the way Linklater sets up the boys as buddy-buddy folk heroes. It's the sort of thing one expects from an old-style hack, not a new-style artist. And if Linklater wanted so much to make a western, why didn't he pick a better model than what appears to be his main one: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? It shares that film's phony-playful movie-glamour archness, though it's less star-powered and commercial. It could use a theme song from Burt Bacharach.
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For all his Gen-X trappings, Linklater has absorbed more of Hollywood into his system than he probably realizes. Surely this film's rationale for robbery is purest Hollywood: If you can get away with it, steal it. But we don't even have the pleasure of seeing how these knockabout boys transformed themselves into master thieves. The bank robberies are staged without any snap, and they always seem too easily brought off. It's as if Linklater were saying that bank robbery was a wide-open field for young venture capitalists without any training or education. That's a funny notion, except Linklater doesn't seem to be in on the joke.
Some directors can profit from the strictures of a strong narrative, but, for Linklater, the conventionality of The Newton Boys works against the glide of his free-floating style. It even works against his actors, who, with the exception of McConaughey, come across as affable props. (Maybe teen girls, a target audience for this film, will feel differently.) McConaughey is just as inauthentic as the rest, but at least he has a chance to cut loose for a change; he's not pumping himself up as a legal eagle or a civil-rights grandstander. The opportunity to play a scoundrel in a Stetson liberates him. I haven't liked him this much since -- no kidding -- The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where he also, er, cut loose.
The Newton Boys closes with a credit sequence that demolishes everything that came before. As the names roll, we're treated to excerpts from a filmed interview with the real-life Willis on a 1980 segment of The Tonight Show, and another, separate interview with Joe. Watching these proud geezers recount their exploits is much more entertaining than anything that came before. Linklater saves his own movie in the end by undercutting it.
The Newton Boys.
Directed by Richard Linklater. With Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, Ethan Hawke and Vincent D'Onofrio.