Published April 1, 1998
The Newton Boys directed by Richard Linklater is the sort of movie that Hollywood made routinely 25 or 30 years ago, a movie about criminals as existential heroes—decent fellows no worse than lots of respectable folks who, though equally ready to be corrupted, haven’t the guts to go out and say “stick ’em up” as the Newton boys do between 1919 and 1924. “We wasn’t gunfighters and we wasn’t thugs like Bonnie and Clyde,” says the real-life Willis “All we wanted was the money. We was just businessmen like doctors and lawyers and storekeepers. Robbin’ banks and trains was our business.” And over the closing credits there is a clip of the man himself, recorded in his old age in the 1970s, saying similar things. His youngest brother Joe, in his 80s, is shown being interviewed on the Johnny Carson Show.
There is a wonderfully period feel to all this. I don’t mean the period of the early 1920s when the story is set. That is actually rather clumsily evoked, and the script contains a number of anachronisms such as “the whole bit” used to refer to marriage and settling down and “turkeys” to refer to federal employees on the mail train the boys rob. “No way, Willis,” says one brother to another when asked to do more than he wants to do. Elsewhere one says “we’re gone” to mean “let’s go” and another says that a light is “buggin’” him. No, the period the film evokes is the druggy, amoral 1970s towards which Linklater was so nostalgic in Dazed and Confused.
Here is an aged ex-bank robber yukking it up with Johnny Carson in his prime and there is the doomed gang of glamorous criminals, drinking and laughing and living life to the full while their soulless prey cower in their money-fortresses. Ironically, their aspirations are just as valid as those of respectable society, and they rob people because they are “talking about our children and our grandchildren not growing up on dirt.” What a concept! Above all there is the bogus political justification for the “business” of bank-robbery on the grounds that the banks don’t contain “people’s” money. Not really. Besides, the banks have been doing dirt on “our people” for years. Anyway, they are all insured, and “insurance companies are the biggest crooks of all.”
Right on, brother!
Willis, the eldest Newton brother and the leader of the gang is played by Matthew McConaughey who shows that he continues to make disastrous career decisions. The brothers are played by Vincent D’Onofrio, Ethan Hawke (who, supposed to be the charming one, is also miscast), and the pretty boy Skeet Ulrich as little Joe. Their accomplice and explosives expert, Brent Glasscock, is played by Dwight Yoakam and Julianna Margulies plays the cigarette girl who becomes Willis’s love interest. The plot consists of a series of more or less interchangeable bank robberies interspersed with scenes of drunken bonhomie reminiscent of Dazed and Confused until the boys are caught robbing the mail train. They get off with light sentences because nobody got hurt except one of the brothers. I think it is supposed to be funny. It’s not.