The Newton Boys (1998)
It's traditional in movies to save the biggest bang for the climax, and well it should be. Anti-climactic climaxes just aren't very satisfying, and spilling the beans too early doesn't leave an audience much to anticipate. Director Richard Linklater takes that tradition one step further in *The Newton Boys*, however. He saves the best part of the movie for the closing credits. There, in footage from a documentary film and a 1980 Johnny Carson show, two real-life Newton boys, octogenarians Joe and Willis, show their legendary right stuff, the outlaw spirit that made them the most successful bank robbers in US history.
It's just as well that Linklater, who penned the script with Claude Stanush and Clark Walker, saved the best for last, because those old fellas dull what little shine there is to their bland fictional counterparts in *The Newton Boys*.
What *The Newton Boys* has in spades is a good-looking cast, twinkling mightily for lack of anything better to do. Linklater, whose indie film credits include the charming *Before Sunrise* and the stultifyingly boring *SubUrbia*, specializes in subcultural immersion talkies, films with characters who hang around doing nothing much in particular other than gab all night long. With *The Newton Boys*, he's out of his element, venturing into the action-filled crime spree genre without contributing much in the way of action. There isn't even that much talk in *The Newton Boys*, an episodic tale that features too much whooping and boys-will-be-boys male bonding that always ends up with the fellas piling on top of each other.
The story goes like this: in the 1920s, the Newton brothers, Willis (Matthew McConaughey), Jess (Ethan Hawke), Joe (Skeet Ulrich) and Dock (Vincent D'Onofrio) team up with explosives expert Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam) to rob a string of 80 banks from Texas to Toronto. They're all charming and cocky, and they never get caught, stealing cash and hearts everywhere they go. Latter day Robin Hoods, they steal from the banks (and bank insurers) and give to themselves. "It's just one thief a-stealin' from another," says the real-life Willis. the Newtons' final, fateful heist is the biggest train robbery in US history, which they almost pull off.
Willis' love interest is Louise Brown (Julianna Margulies). Glasscock's wife Avia (Chloe Webb) shows up from time to time as well, mostly to bat her eyes suggestively at the marital thrills of having nitroglycerine around.
Aside from a few inspired visual moments, and the aforementioned pulchritudinous cast, there just isn't a whole lot to *The Newton Boys*. They rob banks. They get drunk and whoop and holler and pick up girls. They drive a lot and wear big hats because they're from Texas, dagnabbit. the boys do have a few misadventures, thanks to Willis' dangerous tendency to be simultaneously spontaneous and greedy. McConaughey really gleams, flashing pearly white teeth, his eyes bright with passion and mischief. Likewise the rest of the cast, twinkly and charismatic as all get out, but it's all for naught because they might as well be posing for a portrait for all they have to do. Actually, the movie does feature several old-timey shots of the boys posing for portraits, scenes serving as little more than filler and unimaginative movie shorthand for a time period apparently corresponding to the early days of photography. It's unnecessary and redundant since the titles constantly remind, sometimes to the day, exactly when each incident transpires.
The characters are one-note, constant and unchanging from beginning to end, which makes for very little conflict, except the occasional tiff over Willis' reckless ways. They're all wholesome and fresh-faced, without a hint of darkness or rancor -- that's certainly a switch from typical movie outlaws, but it leaves the Newton gang looking blander than white bread. Everybody acts like their lives are fun and adventure-filled, but there is no evidence to support that in the movie, other than a twangy fiddle and banjo music score cued to enhance every heist and getaway. When the boys finally run afoul of the law, at last injecting some potential drama and conflict into the plot, it's every bit dull as the rest of the movie.
The old Newton boys were pretty darn witty and interesting in the clips at the end of the movie, and when a couple of 80 year old geezers are more lively than your movie, it's time to make a different movie. *The Newton Boys* is a case where art imitating life would have improved the art.