THE NEWTON BOYS (1998) ** 3/4
The Online Encyclopedia Britannica contains 533 articles that include "Newton" (including a lot of Isaac and a bit of Huey) but nothing about the Newton bank robbers. Even Boolean searches turned up nothing.
In my amateur poll, no one had ever heard of the Newton Boys. I suspect that today very few Americans have, most likely people over 80. So, score one for movies that add to our knowledge of pop culture. I suspect too that back in 1967, when "Bonnie and Clyde" came out, its characters were far less familiar to a broad public than names such as Capone or Dillinger. Ditto, in 1969, for Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch -- except for people in Wyoming and neighboring states.
Yet, for the period 1919-1924, the four Newton brothers (plus the oddly-named Brent Glasscock, the nitroglycerin expert) were responsible for a record number of successful bank robberies and for the biggest train robbery in American history, arguably in the world, after the British coups of 1855 and 1963.
Why the Newton gang has not, until now, entered history in a big way is probably explained by a statement presumably made by Willis Newton, the leader: " We don't kill anybody, we don't steal from women and children, we don't rat. " Apocryphal or not, this sets the quintet apart from the violence and lack of thieves' honor that prevailed in the Chicago (and Midwest) school of gangsterism.
The Newtons are poor Texas farmers from Uvalde, which happens to be also the hometown of Matthew McConaughey (Willis Newton). Willis is out of jail, to which he was railroaded for something he had not done. Or so he claims. (The film is frustratingly sparse on details and information). He opts for something more fruitful than farming as a career: robbing banks.
With not-so-odd rationalization, he figures that to take money that way is no big crime. After all, banks are insured, the insurers are crooks, the banks inflate their losses, everybody is a thief, so why not rob robbers? One step farther and we could get into the Robin Hood logic, except that the Newtons keep their loot. While watching the film it is worth remembering that it takes place during the affluent Roaring Twenties and not during the future Great Depression when suffering was generalized and banks (those that did not fail) were not only a target but the enemy.
The action starts with a wonderfully quiet and matter-of-fact heist made colorful by a microscopic bank in the middle of a flat nowhere landscape, and doubling the color as an old flivver chases after three hold-up men on horseback.
Then comes the formation of the five-member gang. Willis decrees they must stick to night robberies and use nitroglycerine to blow up safes. It works beautifully, with more piscturesquenes and some quite funny episodes. The protracted spree (five years is a very long time for this sort of thing) takes the Newtons from Texas to Nebraska to Canada, and back to northern Illinois for the train robbery. The train hold-up comes after the gang goes from riches to rags because --ironically-- Willis had made a legitimate investment that turned sour; and after banks started using more nitro-resistant safes.
The Newtons are, by and large, likable fellows, often well-mannered, not a bit nasty or bloodthirsty. But their saga doesn't really work dramatically. The robbers seem to be doing this for a lark, a lark which results in fashionable clothing, new cars, ritzy hotels, and, moderately, in wine, women and song.
Director and co-writer Richard Linklater is a triple-A "new" filmmaker: "Slacker" (1991),"Dazed and Confused" (1993), "Before Sunrise" (1995), "SubUrbia" (1997). An exceptional, original filmmaker, he has, in many ways, adapted to American mores and modified in style and substance, the old French New Wave (notably Godard and Rohmer) in films that are different from one another yet retain a superb sense of humor and of life- with-absurdisms. Throughout his works, Linklater maintains a laid-back attitude (but never twice the same,) sharp eyes and ears, and un-gooey sympathy for his creatures.
Those qualities are in The Newton Boys, but backfire somewhat in what one expects to be a genre action movie. The film has a tendency to meander, pack down too much in sketchy episodes, and occasionally confuse. It even features a standard montage for the passage of time. Willis, as the leader, is the key personage; the others,oo much of a supporting cast, receive scant character development. They are somewhat differentiated but not sharply, and lack fleshing-out. An unintentional red-herring is Brent's wife Avis whose initial appearance suggests sexual possibilities, but nothing comes of that.
The maker of "Slacker," slackens his pace before mid-film. He picks up with his characters' misguided, Keystone-cops-in-reverse fracas with several bank messengers in Toronto and later with the oddball train robbery. Linklater's laid-backness purposely omits other possible tensions while making of the gang nice ole boys whom we perceive as robbers yet not as criminals.
There are, however, several very good touches. A love-affair between Willis and Louise (a single mother who works at the cigar stand of an hotel) may add a diversion that is so-so, yet there is an excellent, early, throwaway, subtle scene of reactions when Louise's date comes to get her as she sits flirting with Willis.
Where "TNB" is admirable is in its production values. Sets, music, costumes, artifacts and paraphernalia combine into a beautiful, authentic-feeling ensemble of period recreation, with much attention to details --down to wristwatches that are right for the time.
The photography is just as good. Cinematographer Peter James has spoken of the visual progression, from the beginning's "prairie feel," to the pastel-using robbery scenes, to the brighter look of the gang's affluent period and the darker look of their downfall days.
Beyond the basic facts, to what extent the movie embroiders on the Newtons' deeds is hard to tell. I feel skeptical about the early scene of a bank director (sic) offering the Newtons an improbable 85 cents on the stolen dollar and giving them a list of 41 banks that still use old-style safes. And, for reasons which you will understand if you see this movie, the brothers have been prettified from the hicks they really were into semi-gentlemanly cowboy-thieves.
Judged by the breathless standards of the genre, "TNB" falls short of expectations. But as a departure from that category, weaknesses and all, the film, while only occasionally gripping, does remain interesting.
Some of the best sections are at the beginning and at the end. The opening credits are like silent movie film cards. I wish the rest of the film had stuck to black and white and I would guess that so did Linklater,but economic imperatives are against this notion. What comes with the end credits is very funny. Do not leave your seat prematurely.
" Le mauvais gout mene au crime" (Stendhal)
Edwin Jahiel's movie reviews are at http://www. prairienet. org/ejahiel