Saturday 30 July 2016

Movie Review: The Newton Boys (1998)

Based on real events, The Newton Boys is a lighthearted drama about a band of brothers from rural Texas who robbed banks at will without hurting anyone in the early 1920s. Despite decent style, the movie never moves beyond perfunctory "good old boys" elements.

In rural Texas, Willis Newton (Matthew McConaughey) comes from a family of horse trainers. Recently released from prison for a crime he claims not to have committed, Willis joins career criminals Slim (Charles Gunning) and Glassock (Dwight Yoakam) in what proves to be a botched daytime bank robbery. Willis decides he can do better leading his own gang, and buys a list of bank safes that can be exploded open with nitroglycerin. He adopts the attitude that the banks and insurance companies are all corrupt, and that he is just a small thief stealing from bigger thieves.

Working with Glassock and eventually recruiting his brothers Joe (Skeet Ulrich), Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Dock (Vincent D'Onofrio), the Newton Boys successfully hit a succession of banks in various cities, all at night, and with plenty of guns but minimal violence. Willis meets and falls in love with Louise (Julianna Margulies) and tries to reinvent himself as an honest oilman, but has to admit that he is better at crime than anything else. But with the banks strengthening their safe security, the robberies start to get more complicated.

Director Richard Linklater tries his hand at a period piece, and does not do so well. The Newton Boys aims at a Bonnie And Clyde vibe without the violence, but instead delivers a frivolous piece celebrating charismatic hold-ups by characters who remain caricatures. There is plenty of 1920s style on display and the film generally looks attractive, but in the absence of depth behind the costumes, it devolves into a repetitive series of robberies by faceless and interchangeable men. The film is not helped by a cluttered cast that features plenty of side characters, including criminals, bankers, insurance agents and law enforcement types who come and go while contributing little.

The context and motivations start and stop with Willis Newton's Robin Hood-inspired philosophy that it's alright to rob banks because banks are corrupt and insurance companies anyway need robberies to sustain their business. It's a simple message for times that were perhaps simpler, but it's insufficient to sustain the film's two hours. The rest of the Newtons range from the charming Jesse (an animated Ethan Hawke) to the worrywart Jess and lughead Dock, and they all remain barely defined people, generally standing aside as the safes blow open with loud bangs.

There are a few good set pieces, including a particularly chaotic money-transfer hold-up in Toronto that descends into a well-executed farce. The romance elements fare much worse, with Louise easily falling under Willis' sweet talking spell and deluding herself that he is a businessman. Once she confronts the truth, Louise's role becomes to whine incessantly for her man to stop doing what he does best.

With jovial bluegrass music adding to the sense of flippancy, The Newton Boys is flighty film that unfortunately fails to impress.

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