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'Newton's' Lawless Gravity

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 27, 1998

  Movie Critic

The Newton Boys
Matthew McConaughey is one of "The Newton Boys." (20th Century Fox)

Richard Linklater
Matthew McConaughey;
Skeet Ulrich;
Ethan Hawke;
Vincent D'Onofrio;
Gail Cronauer;
Julianna Margulies;
Dwight Yoakam
Running Time:
2 hours
For brief nudity, mild profanity and some violence
Richard Linklater all but defined a generation with "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused." Those movies followed a sub-society of goofballs,eccentrics, bullies and other amusing figures drawn from the young, hip Austin, Tex., set. Understandably dissatisfied with being labeled as a Gen-X filmmaker, Linklater has branched out into the big time with "The Newton Boys," a movie about "America's most successful bank robbers" (as the credits note), a real-life family of West Texas farm boys in the 1920s who hit more than 80 banks from Texas to Canada, killed nobody and managed to get out of the "business" with their lives intact.

Nice idea, somewhat lackluster execution. With actors Matthew McConaughey (an old hand in Linklater movies), Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich and Vincent D'Onofrio, Linklater has assembled an engaging gang of boy-toys. But this time, the jokey, fraternal atmosphere which worked for his earlier films comes up short. The story's carefully outlined, but it's devoid of life. "The Newton Boys," which Linklater wrote with Claude Stanush and Clark Lee Walker (adapted from the nonfiction book and documentary, "The Newton Boys: Portrait of an Outlaw Gang"), is pleasant but only fitfully stirring. There are no dramatic peaks and valleys in this story line, just a uniform, dramatic flatness.

The Newton brothers live out a dusty, hardscrabble existence as cotton farmers and cowboys. But after Willis Newton (McConaughey) hooks up with a robber called Slim (Charles Gunning), he gets an idea. Why not make this a family business? After all, the banks are all insured these days. Robbing these places, he figures, is almost doing everyone a favor.

Recruiting his brothers, he builds a gang of familiar archetypes. Willis is the ambitious schemer, the brains of the outfit. Jess (Hawke) is the hard-drinking, convivial type. Joe (Ulrich) is the precious, Buster-Keatonesque kid brother without an aggressive bone in his body, and Dock (D'Onofrio) is the unquestioning soldier-follower, who'll do anything Willis suggests.

Hooking up with nitroglycerin explosives expert Brent Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam), they start their rapidly successful campaign of nonviolent thievery. Their travels take them through the South, up to Canada and then, in the extended finale, to graft-ridden Chicago, where the biggest prize of their careers awaits them on a federal mail train.

Apart from a few nice touches here and there-a silent-movie-style "irissing" in and out of the story-"The Newton Boys" isn't exactly hellbent on breaking the mold of the legendary gangster film. You can see every cliche coming 'round the mountain like a slow-poke freight train: There's Louise (Julianna Margulies), the nice girl who signs on with the robbers-only to find late in the game what her beau really does for a living. And there's banjo-jangling music when the Newtons drive away from robberies while flustered lawmen fire at their heels. By trying to establish himself as a mature-grown-up, if you will-filmmaker, Linklater has neglected to forge a bold new style. There isn't enough to break the mold of the old-fashioned gangster-hero flick. We have seen this done better.

The best part of the movie occurs during the end titles, when we see excerpts from "The Newton Boys" documentary in which aged, real-life Newton boys Willis and Joe tell their stories. Willis yells defiantly from the porch of a rest home that he was justified in robbing, because the banks were robbing the farmers anyway. Joe, shown in a hilarious guest appearance on the Johnny Carson show, warns would-be robbers not to play this fool's game. These few, charming moments seize your attention in ways that the preceding movie never did.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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