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MRQE Top Critic

Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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This is the first Linklater movie that didn’t look like one (no angst-ridden gen-Xers in this one). It’s also the first Linklater movie that I haven’t been pleasantly surprised with. I suspect there’s a correlation.

The Newton Boys is Linklater’s most mainstream and conventional effort so far. It is the self-proclaimed “true story of the most successful bank robbers in the history of the United States.” Starring Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, and Ethan Hawke, this movie also has a pretty high hunk quotient (about a .675, almost as high as “Young Guns”).

Willis Newton (McConaughey) hooks up with a couple of bank robbers who pull a small job in the middle of nowhere. They ride into town in broad daylight and make off with very little money before the local sheriff, in a newfangled horseless carriage, shoots two of the three robbers. After Willis escapes with his friend Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam, who is proving to be a capable actor after his impressive debut in Sling Blade), they talk about what went wrong.

They agree that the idea of a daylight robbery is just plain stupid. A night robbery would have been much easier and more successful. They decide to prove their hypothesis by robbing a bank at night. Willis enlists the aid of his brothers (Ulrich, Hawke, and Vincent D’Onofrio) and before long, they are robbing banks left and right.

They are very successful. They rob at night, and they only attack banks they know have square safes, which are susceptible to nitroglycerine explosives. They are in and out before anybody can organize a posse.

Their luck runs out in Canada, when a bank that was supposed to have a square safe has gone to the uncrackable round-fronted kind. Willis, desperate to make something from his trip to Canada, organizes an ambitious attempt at a daylight robbery. The Newtons prove to be as good at daylight robberies as Linklater is at mainstream movies. Out of their element, the robbery goes bad and the boys are lucky to escape unharmed.

Glasscock and the Newtons realize that their bank robbing days are done because everyone has gone to round safes (largely because of their success). They are rich enough to retire, but they want one last big score. They almost pull off a difficult train robbery, but can’t quite make it work. They mistakenly shoot one of their own men, payoffs to the Chicago mob aren’t made in time... before long they are all arrested. The movie ends with the Newton boys getting light sentences because of their lovable good-ole-boy demeanors.

Linklater seems very taken with the “real story” of the Newton Boys. At the end of the film he reveals what really happened to each character after getting out of prison. Even over the credits he includes documentary footage of Willis Newton recounting his youth and of Johnny Carson interviewing Joe Newton on “The Tonight Show.” There is so much information on the real Newton boys that it is distracting.

My first thought was that Linklater should have spent his energy making a documentary. My second thought was that a more interesting movie might have been made by someone who wasn’t so taken with the real story. An adaptation farther from the truth might have made a better movie. Here’s why:

As interesting as their story is, it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to film — it doesn’t have much of an ending. They go to jail, get out, and live to old age. Not exactly an exciting denouement. It’s an interesting fact but it doesn’t really cap the conflict of the rest of the film.

Also, there are too many characters that are too similar. Sure, each Newton boy has a distinct personality, but their bank robbing careers are so defining that their differences seem small by comparison. There is a slight emphasis on Willis’ character, but there is no single point of focus for the film and the result is a movie that seems a little too even, a little too flat. A bit more contrast might have been farther from the truth, but it would have made a better movie.

I have no other complaints about The Newton Boys. There are even a few areas that I’d praise. Linklater’s fabricated and computer-generated prairie town was surprising in it’s realism and insignificance in the landscape. The music consists of modern recordings of period jazz, an interesting approach, well-suited to this film. But overall, the movie failed to capture my imagination.

Linklater is great at recording the pulse of his generation. He’s a natural with dialogue, self-discovery and angst.The Newton Boys gives him little opportunity to do what he’s good at. It’s the kind of movie most anyone could have directed, and it’s too bad someone else didn’t beat him to it. Still, It looks like The Newton Boys was a labor of love for him, so perhaps it’s doesn’t signal a permanent change in his style. We can only hope that the director of Slacker hasn’t sold out.