The Newton Boys

For Richard Linklater, the vastly talented director of Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and subUrbia, his new biographical film The Newton Boys is a Texas-sized leap. Linklater’s other films were small talking-heads films taking place during the course of a day; The Newton Boys actually has action sequences, spans five years, and cost about $27 million (probably the price tag of his four other efforts combined). You have no idea how much I’d love to say that Linklater’s ambitious gamble paid off and that The Newton Boys is his Pulp Fiction.

Alas, it’s not. The Newton Boys is better than its ads would lead you to believe (I’ve heard it described as Young Guns for the ’90s), but it’s a vague and mostly uninvolving film — an epic, like Boogie Nights, that skitters along the surface and affords itself no time to stop, smell the roses, or dig deeper. This true-life story of four Texas bank-robbing brothers seems to be made up of elements from several better outlaw Westerns, even if everything in the movie is factual (which it probably isn’t, movies being movies). Linklater, a Texan who jumped at the chance to recreate this slice of his history, doesn’t seem engaged in the material — he seems lost in it, and nothing in the script (adapted by Claude Stanush from his own book, then streamlined by Clark Lee Walker and Linklater) plays to his strengths.

Willis Newton (Matthew McConaughey, overdoing his wide grin), the leader of the gang, is suspiciously flawless — courtly with women, great with kids, an essentially decent man who accounts for his crimes by pointing out that the banks are worse thieves than the Newtons are. His brothers — Jess (Ethan Hawke), Joe (Skeet Ulrich), and Dock (Vincent D’Onofrio) — are largely two-dimensional. Where’s the complex brotherhood dynamic you’d expect from a sharp observer like Linklater? These boys have no characters apart from robbing banks and staying resolutely nonviolent; they’re the Mild Bunch.

The robbery episodes play out without much excitement or snap. When a job in Canada goes wrong and the boys bend over backwards not to kill troublesome police, you may chuckle a little. But here you have a crime story in which nobody gets killed; even when one of the brothers is wounded (leading to a sequence that unfortunately echoes Reservoir Dogs), he turns out okay. There’s no tension, no sense of danger, no subtext of tragedy. There’s just a cast of likable actors whooping it up on immaculate period sets (by the gifted Catherine Hardwicke) and a fine director trying to keep too many balls in the air at once, and dropping most of them.

That’s what surprised me the most: Linklater, who juggled huge casts in Slacker and Dazed and Confused and showed equal skill with the cast of two in Before Sunrise, seemed a whiz at the art of narrative. He always knew which small details to emphasize and which to let us discover for ourselves; his seemingly aimless stories actually did have structure and drive. The Newton Boys doesn’t. It has no edge, no apparent guiding vision, and no personal stamp. I challenge any Linklater fan to persuade me that only he, and no one else, could have directed this.

And Linklater has temporarily lost his magic touch with actors. Of the young, eager cast, only Dwight Yoakam as the straight-laced nitro expert Brent Glasscock, Chloe Webb in a small role as Brent’s wife Avis, and veteran actor Bo Hopkins as a Texas Ranger stand out. (Julianna Margulies, of ER, is wasted in the thankless role of Willis’s sweetheart Louise. She’s in the movie so that Matthew McConaughey can be nice to her little boy.) The Newton Boys isn’t as bad as other recent ambitious misfires by major directors (like Amistad and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), but it’s disappointing enough. So is Linklater a limited talent — a one-trick pony who can only do talking-heads movies? No. I don’t doubt that Linklater can paint on a larger canvas — he has the talent and technique. What he lacks in The Newton Boys is the right subject.

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