The most surprising thing about "The Newton Boys" is that it took this
long for somebody to make a movie about them. America loves turning
bandits into folk heroes and these guys are naturals. During their five
year crime spree, from 1919 through 1924, the Texas-born Newton brothers
worked their way across the States and into Canada, holding up over 80
banks and committing the largest train robbery in U.S. history. Along the
way, they never stole from women or children, never killed anyone, and
generally established themselves as well-mannered young rogues with
charisma and a flair for the dramatic.
At least that's how director Richard Linklater tells it in "the true
story of the most successful bank robbers in the history of the United
States." While the accuracy of the story is debatable, there's no denying
that Linklater has crafted an amiable, extremely smooth film and a great
showcase for his cast of hot young actors. Matthew McConaughey, Ethan
Hawke, Skeet Ulrich and Vincent D'Onofrio play the Newtons, with able
assists from Dwight Yoakum as their explosives expert and Chloe Webb and
"ER's" Julianna Margulies as the resident love interests. Although
D'Onofrio, last seen as the dim-witted farmer-turned-alien villain of
"Men In Black," is wasted here, McConaughey, Hawke and, to a lesser
extent, Ulrich are given a welcome chance to strut their stuff.
Following wince-inducing turns in "Contact" and "Amistad," Matthew
McConaughey returns to form here, using his natural drawl in a relaxed,
disarming performance as Willis, the leader of the boys. With an
easygoing manner and a twinkle in his eyes, Willis is a born salesman.
It's easy to understand why the brothers go along with his poorly thought
out schemes and accept his strained rationalizations.
Ethan Hawke, who wanders through most of his films appearing dazed,
painfully earnest and a bit constipated, is a delight here as Jess, the
wildest of the Newton boys. As a struggling farmer, Jess was just another
lost Texas kid, but as a robber he comes into his own, virtually
intoxicated playing out his new-found role as a larger-than-life folk
hero. Hawke's best moments come in a courtroom scene where Jess charms
the pants off of everyone in the room, grinning broadly while tossing
fanciful one-liners to the judge, spectators and reporters.
As Joe, the youngest of the brothers, Skeet Ulrich initially operates as
the conscience of the group, skeptical of Willis' claims that bank
robbery is justifiable because the boys are just little Robin Hoods,
taking money from the real thieves, those companies insuring the banks.
Joe eventually falls in line, but remains the grimmest of the boys,
portrayed with appropriate intensity by Ulrich, who looks for all the
world like a low-rent, heroin-chic version of Johnny Depp.
Films in this genre rarely give women much to do and "The Newton Boys" is
no exception, although Margulies and Webb make the most of their small
roles. In addition to being a fine actor, Julianna Margulies has a
classically-beautiful face that was made for the movies. Sooner or later,
she'll find the right vehicle for her talents and make the jump from TV
to film stardom in a big way.
Director Linklater, whose previous films ("Slacker," "Before Sunrise,"
"subUrbia") focused on youthful angst, does good work in this pleasant
change of pace, maintaining a breezy, playful tone and a strong sense of
period authenticity. As the boys make their way across the country,
Linklater paints a crisp portrait of the small, isolated towns in pre-
Depression America. A swing into Canada provides a appreciated twist on
typical genre locales, with a nice look at Toronto in the '20s. Adding
to the atmosphere is a terrific soundtrack, featuring wonderful tunes
from the period reworked by the Austin bluegrass trio "Bad Livers," with
guest vocals from Patty Griffin, Abra Moore and others.
Be sure to stay for the movie's closing credits, which features actual
interview clips from two of the Newton boys as old men. The real Willis
appears in a 1975 documentary, while Joe turns up on an episode of "The
Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. Hearing the real characters discuss the
very incidents depicted in the film adds a pleasant sense of closure to
Particularly in its early scenes, "The Newton Boys" is structurally
reminiscent of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." While the film
certainly isn't in the same league as "Butch," it does satisfy in its own
low-key fashion. Linklater has created a lively, charming slice of
Americana which delivers an abundance of minor pleasures. Streamlined and
fast-paced, "The Newton Boys" is the most cheerful film to hit the
screens in quite a while and, after three months of post-holiday
cinematic dreck, one of the most welcome.
Copyright © 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott