Newton Boys: Richard Linklater Disappointingly Generic Feature Starring McConaughey

A radical departure from his previous youth-angst movies, The Newton Boys, Richard Linklater’s new film, is a chronicle of the four real-life siblings who have entered into our collective mythology as the most famous bank robbers in American history.

An extremely handsome production that meticulously evokes the 1920s, and a likeable male-dominated cast, headed by Matthew McConaughey in what’s his best screen performance to date, only partially compensate for a potentially epic story that’s too diffuse and lacks a discernible point of view to make it dramatically engaging.

Fox should expect modest returns domestically (and weaken ones overseas) for a period film that doesn’t have the erotic appeal of such classic crime sagas as Bonnie and Clyde, nor the pull of capers like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Sting.

Boasting a large scale production and his biggest budget to date, Newton Boys represents a welcome new path for Texas’ indie filmmaker Linklater, arguably the most eloquent cinematic spokesperson of Generation-X, with such films as the structurally innovative Slacker, the charmingly poignant Dazed & Confused, and the cerebrally romantic Before Sunrise. A follow-up to the disappointingly stagey SuBurbia, which was entirely and claustrophobically set in a parking lot, Newton Boys is a refreshingly outdoor saga that combines elements of both the Western and gangster genres in telling a quintessentially American crime story.

Spanning five years, 1919 to 1924, the script, co-written by Linklater, Claude Stanush and Clark Lee Walker, establishes right away the context of a post-WWI rural society on the verge of a dramatic change, catapulted by forces of technology, urbanization and industrialization. When the story begins, the Newtons are poor, struggling farmers with a chip on their shoulders. It’s also implied that Willis (McConaughey), the eldest and dominant brother, was falsely convicted and served some time in prison.

Realizing that there is no future in the bleak cotton fields, Willis is determined to improve his family lot by becoming a “businessman,” with one minor alteration: a businessman whose line of work is bank robbing. The rationale he provides to his mom (Gail Cronauer) and brothers is rather simple: Robbing banks is not a major crime, because the banks are insured and, after all, insurance companies are the society’s biggest crooks. At first, there’s some objection on moral grounds from the youngest brother, Joe (Skeet Ulrich), but after a while, he too becomes convinced that there’s not much wrong in “little thieves stealing from the big thieves.”

The film is effective in portraying the Newtons as genuinely Texas gentlemen who just happened to become wild outlaws. Throughout, the brothers perceive themselves not as gunfighters but “businessmen,” who want to make enough money to launch more legit endeavors, such as oil. The Newtons adhere to a gentlemanly code of ethics, composed of three basic rules: They don’t kill anybody, they don’t steal from women and children, and they don’t rat.

Divided into chronological chapters, assisted with title cards that signal the precise whereabouts of the gang, the yarn goes on to record one robbery after another. Despite fastidious attention to detail–there’s a gripping demonstration of how easy it was to rob banks in those days–first half is too amorphous and not particularly involving. Supplementing the heists are the boys’ amorous affairs, particularly the one between Willis and Louise (Julianna Margulies), a young widow and mother, who works at a cigar stand and later joins Willis in his escapades.

Pic gains considerable momentum once it reaches the year of 1924 and the execution of the greatest train robbery in American history, a $3-million mail train heist outside Chicago. All goes well, until Joe accidentally shoots his brother Doc (Vincent D’Onofrio), the last to join the gang upon release from prison. Placing family loyalty above all other concerns, the siblings take risk and arrange for Doc to be treated by a physician, which actually saves his life.

Last reel is particularly poignant in describing the court trial, in which the Newtons and their crime partners were indicted and sent to prison. These sequences present thematic elements that will become most prominent in American culture of future decades: corrupt policemen and law officers, obsession of the news media with celeb criminals, an inherently faulty justice system that discriminates against culprits in an arbitrary manner. Indeed, reflecting the importance of appearance, charm and performance skills in court, the trial results in minor sentences for the siblings, and major ones for their cohorts. As amazingly–and ironically–revealed in title cards, all four boys went on to live to a very ripe age until their peaceful deaths.

Though working with an appealing cast, Linklater seldom succeeds in making the brothers sympathetic or emotionally engaging figures for which the audience can root. Newton Boys has a richly-detailed story, with a good sense of time and place, but no interesting characters at the center to hold attention. To be fair, the siblings are distinguishable, but some of them, particularly Jess and Doc, have no roles to play. Same applies to the few women in the cast, including Louise and Avis (Chloe Webb), as the pragmatic wife of the Newtons’ crime accomplice.

Script’s deficiencies are very much manifest in the acting. After a couple of disappointing performances (Contact, Amistad), McConaughey finally gets a role which integrates his handsome looks, authentic Texan dialect, and laid-back easygoing style. Of the other brothers, Ulrich brings commanding intensity to the role of the young, initially naive Joe; Hawks has a wonderful scene in court in which he venomously charms the judges; but the always reliable D’Onofrio is totally wasted.

Under these circumstances, the viewers can still marvel at the beautifully mounted production, with strong contributions from lenser Peter James, editor Sandra Adair, and especially production designer Catherine Hardwicke and costumer Shelley Komarov that result in a smooth, pleasant experience.

Pic comes to an unexpectedly exciting crescendo during the end credits, when Linklater inserts documentary footage of the real-life siblings. A 1980 Tonight Show, in which host Johnny Carson talked to the still feisty Willis, and a recorded interview with the aging but lucid Joe, illustrate what a great film The Newton Boys could have been if it were based on stronger and more nuanced characterization.