Friday, June 28, 2013

The Newton Boys

Based on the book by Claude Stanush, The Newton Boys is the true story about a family of thieves known as the Newton Gang who were one of the most notorious bank and train robbers of the early 20th Century. Directed by Richard Linklater and written by Linklater, Stanush, and Clark Lee Walker, the film marks Linklater’s first foray into studio features as he explores the world of the Western and a family that are eager to make their name as thieves. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich, Vincent D’Onofrio, Julianna Marguiles, and Dwight Yoakam. The Newton Boys is a delightful though very flawed film from Richard Linklater.

The film is about a group of brothers who gained notoriety in the early 1920s robbing banks throughout the American Midwest as they were successful in their venture until a train robbery in Chicago where some confusion leads to their downfall. Yet, it is about these four brothers from Texas as they have endured so much poverty as their eldest brother Willis Newton (Matthew McConaughey) has just been released from a 3-year prison sentence for a crime he never committed. With the help of his friend Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam), Newton gathers his brothers Jesse (Ethan Hawke), Joe (Skeet Ulrich), and Dock (Vincent D’Onofrio) to take part in a series of nighttime bank robberies that were major successes. With success comes trouble and also greed as the brothers try to maintain a life without crime but things don’t work well leading to their botched Chicago train robbery.

The film’s screenplay does have this unique structure where it has a level of excitement in the first two acts in how Willis Newton decided to go into the world of bank robbery. Even as he brings in his younger brothers in Jesse and Joe into the mix early in the film as they both have different ideas about robbery with Jesse being the liveliest of the bunch while Joe is more reluctant but understand the need for money. Dock eventually comes to the fold after he escapes prison where the robberies are successful as they’re only in it to get the money from big banks and making sure no one gets killed. Along the way, Willis gains a companion in Louise (Julianna Marguiles) who would try to pull him away from crime but various setbacks in attempt to go legal would trouble things. Even a tempting yet dangerous theft of a bank in Toronto would have Willis re-think about everything he went through.

The first two acts does have this sense of liveliness in the script though it does have issues in character development where Jesse is always a charismatic drunk who likes to have fun while Dock is someone who doesn’t really get much to do. Then comes the third act that culminates with the Chicago train robbery where things get darker and dramatic where the story loses some steam. Notably as they deal with the law and other authorities where it gets very grim and the film becomes uneven in tone.

The direction of Richard Linklater is quite grand but also has a sense of looseness in the way the robberies are presented as it is told in great detail. Linklater also creates some amazing compositions and moments where he keeps things lively for most of the film as it has some humor as well as low-key moments where Willis Newton lives his life with Louise. For the robbery scenes, Linklater does carry an air of suspense in the fact that something could go wrong though it would be more prevalent in its third act. Due to the weakness of the script in that third act, things do lose some luster where Linklater does try to create something lively again but it often feels to tacked on making the ending a bit drawn out despite some very good moments in the final credits scene that features the real Willis Newton talking in a documentary and a 1980 episode of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson where Joe Newton talks. Overall, Linklater creates a fine but messy film about a gang of brothers robbing banks.

Cinematographer Peter James does excellent work with the cinematography as it‘s mostly straightforward for many of its scenes set in Texas in its exterior and interior settings. Editor Sandra Adair does fantastic work with the editing to create some great montages for some of the robberies as well as some methodical cuts for the suspenseful moments. Production designer Catherine Hardwicke and set decorator Jeanette Scott do amazing work with the set pieces from the look of the hotels the brothers stay in to the look of the cars and such to capture the period of the early 1920s.

Costume designer Shelley Komarov does wonderful work with the costumes from the clothes the men wear to the stylish dresses that Louise wears. Sound editor Pat Jackson does terrific work with the sound to capture the energy of the robberies as well as the atmosphere of the clubs the characters go to. The film’s music by Edward D. Barnes is a delightful mix of ragtime music with blues and country to play up the sense of energy while music supervisors Keith Fletcher and Mark Rubin add material from the standards of the time to play up the liveliness of that period.

The casting by Don Phillips is brilliant as it features a huge ensemble that includes some notable small roles from Chloe Webb as Glasscock’s wife, Charles Gunning as the robber Slim, Luke Askew as the Chicago police chief Schoemaker, David Jensen as the Chicago train robbery organizer William Fahy, and Bo Hopkins in a terrific performance as the investigator K.P. Aldrich who looks into the Newton Boys’ robberies. Dwight Yoakam is excellent as the nitroglycerine explosives expert Brentwood Glasscock who is the most careful of the bunch though he is not very good with guns. Julianna Margulies is wonderful as Louise as Willis’ lover who discovers about what he does as she tries to get him to go straight only to realize the difficulties he’s facing.

Vincent D’Onofrio is good as Dock Newton as the guy who can get things done and such though D’Onofrio doesn’t really get much to do as he’s sort of wasted in the film. Ethan Hawke is very funny as the lively Jesse Newton as a guy who likes to flirt with the ladies and drink while being a charmer though the script doesn’t give Hawke more to do. Skeet Ulrich is superb as the youngest Newton brother Joe as the most reluctant person of the group who is aware of what has to be done while facing the dangers of their crimes. Finally, there’s Matthew McConaughey in a marvelous performance as Willis Newton as the ringleader of the gang who organizes every heist and such while being a man of charm and wit as McConaughey brings a lot of gusto to his role.

The Newton Boys is a good though flawed film from Richard Linklater. While it has a great cast, amazing set pieces, and a terrific soundtrack. It’s a film that starts off well only to be bogged down by some weak aspects of the script in its third act. Particularly where it wants to be a western comedy as well as a docu-drama where it becomes very uneven in tone. In the end, The Newton Boys is a fine and worthwhile film from Richard Linklater.

Richard Linklater Films: It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books - Slacker - Dazed & Confused - Before Sunrise - subUrbia - Waking Life - Tape - School of Rock - Before Sunset - Bad News Bears (2005 film) - A Scanner Darkly - Fast Food Nation - Me and Orson Welles - Bernie (2011 film) - Before Midnight - Boyhood - Everybody Want Some!! - The Auteurs #57: Richard Linklater Pt. 1 - Pt. 2

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