The great charm of Richard Linklater's The Newton Boys derives from its quartet of matinee idols--Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, Ethan Hawke and Vincent D'Onofrio--and its unbridled affection for the high-spirited gang of Texas country boys they portray, adventurers who rob banks with such sunny enthusiasm and impeccable yes-ma'am manners that an audience has almost no choice but to fall for them. Any grandmother up in the balcony would be proud to call a bright, polite boy like Hawke's Jess Newton her own. And she likely wouldn't give a hoot that he's just knocked over the Farmers Trust of Omaha.
Romantic outlaws have been a staple of Hollywood movies since the Warner brothers first stuck the soundtrack on the edge of the celluloid, but Linklater's take on the type is something special. Having built his reputation on raw, youth-cult hits like Slacker and Dazed and Confused, here he parlays a big budget and handsome production values into a most appealing valentine to grand larceny, set at a pivotal American moment. The real-life Newton brothers, you see, began their careers in crime stealing watermelons in Uvalde County, Texas, before World War I. They went on to rob more than eighty Midwestern banks (sometimes two in one night, but always without shooting anyone) between 1919 and 1924. After a rough scrape with local and federal authorities in Chicago, they served their time, returned to Texas and, to a man, died in bed of old age. There's not much tragic potential in that, but there's a good deal of historical reach.
Said another way, the Newtons inherited the rough frontier instincts of Jesse James, bridged the gap to Bonnie and Clyde and lived long enough, some of them, to witness the election of Richard Nixon. This gives Linklater plenty of stylistic leeway and the chance to write another elegy for the Old West even as he's glorifying some of Hollywood's newest stars. He makes the most of the opportunities. The Newton Boys opens with a lovely sequence of black-and-white credits in vintage silent-movie style, accompanied by rinky-dink piano, and in the first robbery sequence, our folk heroes, in neckerchiefs and cowboy hats, struggle to make their escape on horseback while a black Model-T Ford stuffed with lawmen scoots after them into the mists of a Texas afternoon. Right there, we know what we're in for: The Times, They Are A-Changin'.
The leader of the pack is cocky young Willis Newton (McConaughey), an inveterate charmer and liar sharpened by a stint in the state pen and convinced that he's a little thief taking down larger thieves--like crooked bankers bilking their insurance companies. "I'm good friends with Pancho Villa," he brags. But at heart he's no rebel. Fact is, Willis is in bank robbery only as a kind of apprenticeship. His real dream is to dig oil wells back home in Texas and let the prosperity simply gush. It's not to be.
"We don't kill, we don't rob women and children, and we don't rat," he explains. Who are we to resist such lofty principles? Every time slick Willis, rowdy brother Dock (D'Onofrio), shy boy Joe (Ulrich) and cool cat Jess steal into a bank at midnight, blow off the door of the safe with that newfangled nitroglycerin and retire to their hotel suite to count the cash, drink whiskey and play the ukulele, we can't help thinking that chivalry is not dead. Why, when a meddlesome old woman in a nightcap interrupts their work, the Newtons don't shoot her; they politely tell her to go back to bed.
This, we suspect, is a wild gloss on the facts, but who's in a mood to argue? The picture is so genial--none of Bonnie Parker's forebodings of doom for this wild bunch--that we are swept along by the Robin Hood romance of it all. Little matter that the Claude Stanush book on which the script is based is itself based on the twilight memories of the Newtons themselves: The boys' credentials as con men had been established decades earlier.
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As I said, why quibble? One of the things movies do best, after all, is make myth. Linklater gives the Newtonian exploits a romantic sheen, cinematographer Peter James captures them in soft, golden light, and the glorious young cast seems to be having such a great time that it will never end. Even the brothers' near-disastrous encounter with a crew of Toronto bank guards and the overly ambitious mail-train robbery that finally brings them low have about them a buoyant, Keystone Kops quality that renders the Newtons bulletproof (for the most part) and leaves our own darker fears undisturbed. When Willis falls in love with an Omaha cigar-stand girl (Julianna Margulies), that has the aura of myth, too: She knows better, but she'll stick by her man.
All of this sunlight is probably what makes Linklater's observations on time and tide so poignant. When one of the Newtons, gotten up now as a city slicker in a celluloid collar, arranges at a hotel desk to send his saddle back to Texas, the scene is no less affecting than watching outmoded cowboy Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are the Brave, stranded with his horse on a highway as behemoth trucks blow their air horns at him. And when the boys from Texas suddenly find themselves over their heads up in Al Capone's Chicago, we find ourselves yearning for their trampled ethics--fictional though they might be.
The Newton Boys works well, I think, because of its lovely clash of tones--the comic and the elegiac--and its conviction that the dashing thief with a nice sense of humor and a taste for good whiskey is still a figure that can fill the multiplexes. Happily, McConaughey, a shameless ham in some movies (witness Amistad or A Time to Kill), seems uncommonly at ease here--perhaps because, just like Willis, he hails from Uvalde, Texas. But his co-stars (who also include the great character man Charles Gunning as a conniving accomplice, Slim, and Luke Askew as a vicious Chicago police chief) carry their weight, too. This is one of the most attractive pieces of ensemble acting I've seen in many a movie, and one of the most appealing films of the year. Buy a ticket. Enjoy the charm. Get pleasantly conned.
The Newton Boys.
Screenplay by Richard Linklater, Claude Stanush and Clark Lee Walker, based on a book by Claude Stanush. Directed by Richard Linklater. With Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, Ethan Hawke, Julianna Margulies and Vincent D'Onofrio.