Stolen Moments As a series of scenes, "The Newton Boys" pleasantly portrays on film the most successful and forgotten bank robbers in history. But any true depth was left in the vault

March 27, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

The Newton Boys were the most successful bank robbers in American history, but they never attained the legendary status of Butch, Sundance or the James gang, probably because they never killed anyone in their exploits.

Not incidentally, what made them so successful was that they weren't terribly flamboyant. To them, robbing banks and trains was as workaday as the desk jobs of the bankers and insurance men they loathed so deeply.

It's easy to see what attracted director Richard Linklater to the Newtons' story: Four brothers barnstorming the country from Texas to Toronto offer irresistible fodder for epic history and adventure. Best known for such real-time, discursive teen comedies as "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused," Linklater must have figured the Newtons would help him break out into something far more sweeping and enduring.

He has succeeded, but not completely. "The Newton Boys" never achieves the scope or the depth that the brothers' real lives call for; instead, it settles for being an episodic, relatively superficial retelling of their exploits, never delving deeper into the motivations and contradictions that drove their larcenous enterprise. And because their career was just that -- a career -- the film never takes off into the action-packed high jinks that characterize the best crime movies.

Still, "The Newton Boys" has its pleasures, among them some scene-stealing performances from its young cast and the unearthing of a remarkably colorful chapter of American history. Even though "The Newton Boys" is reality-based -- Linklater and his co-screenwriters, Clark Walker and Claude Stanush, have kept fictionalizations to a minimum -- the film plays like an affable tall tale, which, if not an American classic, should prove a pleasant diversion.

Matthew McConaughey plays Willis Newton, the ringleader of the clan who was falsely accused of aiding his brother Dock (Vincent D'Onofrio) in a robbery. During his time in prison, Willis became embittered against the system and also befriended hardened criminals. Upon his release, he returned to his home in Uvalde, Texas, where his brothers Jess (Ethan Hawke) and Joe (Skeet Ulrich) made their living breaking horses and picking cotton.

Willis would have none of the hardscrabble life, and he soon began robbing banks with a jailbird friend (Charles Gunning) and a nitroglycerin expert, Brent Glass-cock (Dwight Yoakam). When and Glasscock went into partnership for themselves, he enlisted Joe and Jess -- and later Dock, when he escaped from prison -- to blow safes from Texas to Canada.

Their five-year career came to an end after they were arrested for stealing $3 million from a mail train in Rondout, Ill., but, according to the film's postscript, the Newton boys may never have gotten crime out of their systems. (Filmgoers are urged to stay for the closing credits, where delightful surprises are in store.)

"The Newton Boys" has a lot going for it -- a handsome production design, a lovely burnished glow, a wonderful musical score by Danny Barnes and a modest, easygoing mood -- but what it doesn't have is Willis Newton.

Although McConaughey cuts a fine, Arrow-shirt-type figure as the charismatic scamp, he never brings Willis to life. We see plenty of Willis' charm -- especially when he seduces his longtime love, Louise (a radiant Julianna Margulies) -- but the depths of the man's bitterness, borne of his belief that life dealt him the rawest of deals, never comes into full focus.

Whether he is wrassling with his brothers, pitching woo with Louise or making deals with the federal agent who's been trailing him for years, Willis seems to be going through the motions. Surely Willis was not a man given to much self-examination, but he seems worthy of a deeper look from the filmmakers. (Now might be an opportune time for full disclosure: This critic came to know Stanush and Walker, as well as the film's producer, Anne Walker-McBay, when she lived in Austin, Texas. The movie was filmed in and around Austin last summer. She became a student of the Newtons and may demand more in the way of background than the average moviegoer.)

Willis should be the lively center of "The Newton Boys," but this role is usurped by Jess, the drunken layabout played with crackling, lanky flair by Hawke. In a film oddly bereft of humor and energy (scenes of chases and shootouts would have benefited from crisper editing), Jess is the only comic relief, thanks to Hawke's innate charm and gift for shameless mugging. Good too are Yoakam, as the hypochondriac Glasscock, and Ulrich, whose shy, sweet Joe is the only character who reflects on the morality of what he and his brothers are doing.

Morality is an issue that Linklater himself seems reluctant to address. He lays out the Newtons' story as a series of scenes, rarely pausing to consider the deeper ramifications of their acts or Willis' self-serving logic that he was "just a little thief, stealing from the big thieves."

The Newtons are depicted not as criminals but as consummate -- and harmless -- mischief-makers, who plied their trade with birdshot and stink bombs. They were much more than that. In fact, they symbolized a coming era in American market capitalism in which money would justify just about any venal behavior.

But it's just this moment of cultural transition -- embodied by the wily, amoral Willis -- that "The Newton Boys" fails to capture. Without that bitter heart, "The Newton Boys" is a sweet movie about some of America's more colorful and forgotten sons. It's worth seeing if only for this fascinating chapter of true crime to come to light.

'The Newton Boys'

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich, Vincent D'Onofrio, Dwight Yoakam, Julianna Margulies

Directed by Richard Linklater

Released by 20th Century Fox

Rated PG-13 (violence, including bloody aftermath of a shooting, and language)

Sun Score: ***

Pub Date: 3/27/98

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