"The Newton Boys"

Laura Miller reviews 'The Newton Boys' Directed by Richard Linklater and starring Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, Ethan Hawke and Dwight Yoakam

By Laura Miller

Published March 27, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Whatever its weaknesses -- rambling self-referentiality, amateur performances, plotlessness -- Richard Linklater's 1991 feature debut, "Slacker," felt like something new, a glimpse at a shambling, bemused subculture that had never appeared on screen before. His 1993 film "Dazed and Confused" riffed on "American Graffiti," yes, but it offered the previously undepicted '70s version of George Lucas' small town coming-of-age ensemble picture. Everything the amiable Linklater has directed since -- "SubUrbia," "Before Sunrise" -- can make at least a modest claim to freshness, which is what makes the crushing and ponderous familiarity of "The Newton Boys" so bewildering.

You have seen this movie before, every morsel of it. A cross between "Young Guns" (and we've already had two of those!) and "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Newton Boys" recycles devices and clichis from dozens of movies, particularly that spate of '70s films that capitalized on that decade's infatuation with both Western outlaws and the roaring '20s. In this tale of a family of po' country boys-turned-bank robbers, you will see:

  • Three dreamy young male stars -- Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich and Ethan Hawke -- playing the Boys (plus Vincent D'Onofrio doing Michael J. Pollard duty as the big lug brother), wearing cute olde tymey clothes, including vests, starched collars, cowboy hats, suspenders, little billed tweed caps and long johns, and riding around on horses and in shiny vintage cars.

  • Countless bank robbery scenes concluding in shots of the Boys, clutching sacks of money, yee-hawing and leaping into the back of the vintage cars as high-spirited fiddle music saws away on the soundtrack.

  • Almost as many scenes of the Boys lounging around in hotel rooms, drinking whiskey, tossing money up in the air, hooting and jumping all over each other in boisterous fraternal horseplay.

  • A nice girlfriend (Julianna Margulies) for Willis (McConaughey), the ringleader, who is forever threatening to leave him if he doesn't abandon his life of crime.

  • Scenes of the aforementioned girlfriend using a camera on a tripod to photograph the proudly posing Boys, which images freeze into old-fashioned sepia-toned stills.

  • A montage sequence conveying the Boys' successful crime spree, featuring newspaper clippings, maps of the backroads of Western states, more money flying through the air and even more fiddle music.

  • More than one scene in which McConaughey says things like, "I was born into nothin' and ain't nobody given me nothin'."

  • Conversations in which one character is drinking and sitting in a claw-foot tub in the middle of the room. (Although, to be fair, there isn't a scene of the Boys soaking in tin tubs while wearing cowboy hats, smoking cigars or playing cards.)

  • A couple of honky-tonk/speakeasy scenes with shimmying flapper dancing girls, torch singers and the boozing Boys livin' it up with a fast woman on each arm.

  • A sense of impending doom as Willis gets cocky and greedy and starts taking too many chances.

  • The Big Heist, in this case a hubristic $3 million train robbery, which puts the Boys in the greatest peril of their career.

  • Really, just an awful lot of banjo pickin'.

The movie goes on and on until it seems that, by sheer laws of probability alone, Linklater has to throw something, anything, new into this tired exercise, but no. "The Newton Boys" is an act of flawlessly sustained derivativeness, with puzzling intentions. Perhaps it's meant to lean on the appeal of its young stars, but the dreamboats are few ("Young Guns," after all, had six cute guys -- that's twice as many!) and McConaughey, who has always seemed to be manufactured from a burnished and disturbing unfleshlike material, isn't really the stuff teen heartthrobs are made of. Hawke, as Jess, the most rambunctious and good-for-nothin' Newton, wears an unflattering, weedy mustache and Ulrich looks so much like Johnny Depp it's distracting.

There's plenty of time to wonder why this movie was ever made before the final scenes, which bring into focus the fact that "The Newton Boys" is based on a true story. The actual Newtons, two of whom appear in interesting archival footage during the closing credits, robbed nearly 100 banks in the '20s, mostly by night and using explosives, all without killing a soul. Linklater apparently found their lives as regular, working criminals intriguing, but his movie doesn't capitalize on the Boys' (usual) professionalism and efficiency as a satirical counterpoint to the hotheaded outlaws depicted in most westerns and gangster pictures. Instead, he's taken an offbeat little American success story (the Boys all lived to ripe old age) and turned it into a bad case of dij` vu all over again.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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