Newton Boys, The

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

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.

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