March 27, 1998 in Seven

‘Newton Boys’ Underplays Great Story

Robert W. Butler Kansas City Star
 

It’s not hard to see why Texas-bred indie filmmaker Richard Linklater chose “The Newton Boys” for his first big-budget effort.

For four years in the early 1920s the four Newton brothers from the Lone Star State robbed at least 80 banks throughout the U.S. and Canada, making off with millions and never killing anyone (they pulled most of their jobs at night). America’s most successful bank robbers, they paid for their crimes with ridiculously short jail terms and lived to be very old men.

Heck of a story. But despite a cast overflowing with young talent, a detailed re-creation of the period and a few nifty robbery sequences, “The Newton Boys” comes off as a sleekly designed vehicle powered by little more than a lawnmower motor.

Linklater’s screenplay clearly sets out the facts, but he’s been unable to find a point of entry that gives the tale a special spin. As a result the yarn seems mostly a collection of robberies interspersed with lots of drinking and carousing.

The story begins shortly after World War I with the arrival on the decidedly unprosperous Newton ranch of Willis Newton (Matthew McConaughey), fresh out of jail. He talks his two younger brothers, Jess (Ethan Hawke) and Joe (Skeet Ulrich), into attempting a few robberies.

They’re soon joined by big brother Dock (Vincent D’Onofrio), until recently also a guest of the state, and by Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam), a specialist in blowing open the old-fashioned box safes that back then were a fixture of every small-town bank.

Linklater’s screenplay reduces most of these characters to a single trait. McConaughey’s Willis is the cocky ringleader, a born con artist who can smoothtalk his way into or out of any situation. Hawke’s Jess and D’Onofrio’s Dock are basically party animals, always ready to open a bottle and grab a girl.

Only Ulrich’s Joe, the youngest of the bunch, seems to have done much soul-searching about the family business. Joe’s a decent enough sort to question the morality of robbing banks, but he takes to heart brother Willis’ claim that “We’re just little thieves stealing from big thieves” and puts family above all else.

Among the supporting players are Julianna Margulies as a cigar stand clerk who falls hard for the charming Willis, and Bo Hopkins and Luke Askew as a couple of lawmen who make it their mission to track down the larcenous siblings.

The ultimate irony may be that the best moments in “The Newton Boys” come during the closing credits. There Linklater gives us Joe Newton’s 1980 appearance on “The Tonight Show” and documentary footage of the elderly Willis reminiscing on his career in crime. The two old gents are immensely charming and funny.

“The Newton Boys” is diverting enough, but what you see is pretty much all you get. It’s a conventional movie, exhibiting little of the charm that made Linklater’s “Slacker,” “Dazed & Confused” and “Before Sunrise” such memorable experiences. Amazing how creative you can get when you haven’t got money to spend.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

“The Newton Boys”

Location: Lyons, Spokane Valley Mall, Showboat

Credits: Directed by Richard Linklater, starring Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dwight Yoakam

Running time: 2:05

Rating: PG-13

This sidebar appeared with the story: “The Newton Boys” Location: Lyons, Spokane Valley Mall, Showboat Credits: Directed by Richard Linklater, starring Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dwight Yoakam Running time: 2:05 Rating: PG-13

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