Richard Linklater, notorious for his modern day Generation X films, strikes off in new territory in The Newton Boys, a period drama detailing the true-life exploits of the most successful gang of bank robbers in United States history.
The mastermind behind the robberies is Willis Newton (Matthew McConaughey) who, after being wrongly imprisoned, decides to take a little back from the system. He teams up with an explosives expert, Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam), and together they plan to rob square-door bank safes up and down the country.
To help them out, Willis enlists his brothers. There’s Jess (Ethan Hawke), the cowboy of the bunch who lives for the moment. Joe (Skeet Ulrich) is the youngest Newton, and the one with the largest moral dilemma. Finally, there’s Dock (Vincent D’Onofrio), the eldest, and most stubborn of the family Newton.
Together, they blaze a trail throughout the Midwest in the early 1920s (and even to Canada at one point). They never aim to hurt anyone…they just want the money. Along the way, Willis discovers one more thing he wants: Louise Brown (Julianna Margulies), whom he woos by pretending he’s a wildcatting oilman.
The Newton Boys takes a cavalier attitude toward its subject, painting the bank robbers as modern day Robin Hoods, who, since they were poor, robbed the rich and gave to themselves. The film is more about their attitude than about their crimes, or even their personalities. Aside from the well-done period detail, there’s not much we learn from The Newton Boys.
The lead characters are all genial in their roles. They’re likable, but not outstanding. They’re not bad here, but they’ve all done better work.
Perhaps the problems that fail to give the movie any lasting weight are the same that have allowed the exploits of the Newton boys to fade from popular knowledge. Sure, they set a record, but other than that, there’s very little there: no lurid tabloid details that stick in the mind, or lasting personalities to haunt us.
The best I can claim about The Newton Boys movie is that it is diverting. It is an anecdote of a movie that will pass the time, but won’t linger on your mind.