The Newton Boys is, alongside Starship Troopers (1997), one of the curiosity items of late '90s American cinema – intriguing and dissatisfying in roughly equal measure.
Director and co-writer Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, 1995) here extends his abiding interest in the whimsies of everyday life to a true story in period costume. The Newton boys were a carefree gang of bank robbing brothers in the 1920s. They never killed cops or innocent bystanders; rarely shot a gun; and possessed a fine, populist sense of the political validity of their actions.
Almost nothing grave or suspenseful happens in this lighter-than-air movie. The boys blow up banks almost casually, in near-empty streets late at night. They clown around, swap wisecracks, drink a little, occasionally fall in love with like-minded women. The film has less a plot than an inventory – literally, a handwritten list of banks which the boys dutifully tick off as they ramble about the country.
There are moments when danger lurks, a deception is uncovered, greed tempts or a foolish mistake is made. But Linklater steadfastly resists every opportunity to indulge in high-spirited entertainment along the lines of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) or Bonnie and Clyde (1967). There is a terrific punch-line at the very end which almost justifies the two and a quarter hours spent sidling up to it – almost, but not quite.
Linklater's films, in their strong commitment to everyday life, court artlessness, banality and non-engagement. That is his ethic, his vision and style – and The Newton Boys is, at the very least, true to this ongoing mission. The pleasures offered by his movies are small-scale and intimate, never spectacular – such as, here, the enjoyment of watching some wonderful actors (Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio and Skeet Ulrich) relax into their characters.
I suspect that viewers are meant to slip comfortably into the luxurious world of The Newton Boys as if it were an easy chair. It struck me as a distant mirage, only fitfully involving. Linklater takes on a lot in trying to bend period recreation, as well as echoes of the Western and gangster genres, into his own homely, modest aesthetic – and I do not believe he entirely succeeds.
But this is, undeniably, a personal and unique project from an artist who is already working well beyond the twee fashions of the American indie cult. It remains to be seen whether he can develop and consolidate his studiously whimsical style, or whether he will forever alternate between artistic hits (like SubUrbia, 1996) and near-misses.
© Adrian Martin June 1998