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The Newton Boys (Richard Linklater) 1998

Richard Linklaterís The Newton Boys eschews much of the post-modern trappings that have defined the western genre in the nineties. Sure, it begins with a credits sequence that mimics the style of an old silent serial (complete with a fisheye lens), and it has one scene in which some of the eponymous boys are accused of stealing from a movie house (though they are never convicted), but the filmís sensibilities seem much closer to those of the 1920ís in which the film was set. Itís an old-fashioned work, and that feeling is compounded by some wonderful documentary footage that plays during the credits. The comments of those involved in the actual events lend an immeasurable air of authenticity to the film.  It might be tempting to classify the filmís identification with the bank robbers as post-modern, especially since Bonnie and Clyde essentially kicked off the modern era of filmmaking, but consider the fact that even 1903ís The Great Train Robbery gave more screen time to its criminals than its posse. 

That screen time tells a fairly standard story, and there are few genuine surprises to be found in that respect. Still, the movie isnít so much about plot as mood and character. This is the closest Linklater has come to making a Hollywood film, and he uses the resources to enhance, rather than ignore, his worldview. The cast is fairly excellent, with Ethan Hawkeís drunkard being the standout. Matthew McConaughey has the largest role, and shows more charm here than in nearly any other film that he has been in. Although the filmís setting is far from the modern day slacker world of Linklaterís other films, the prevailing attitude seems to be the same. Itís a mix of Texan charm and genteel sophistication. This treatment of the subject matter doesnít ever come off as cocky. It creates a wonderful sense of respect toward history. Several times, the Newton boys are allowed to state their socio-political justification for robbing banks. That they use flawed logic isnít the point. That they get a chance to make their case is. Linklater really isnít an astounding visualist (though the film is attractive) nor does he have a tremendous sense of pacing. What he does have is a humanist streak that runs throughout his films. Even when a double cross occurs in the film, he pauses to note that the traitor continued to assert his innocence. That genuine regard for his characters and fidelity to his setting are his strongest directorial traits. Iíll take that over puffed up set pieces and quick cutting any day.

***1/2

11/06/01

Jeremy Heilman