The Linklater Project 5: The Newton Boys (1998)

One of our favorite filmmakers, Richard Linklater, is releasing a new film this summer. So, we figured we’d watch all of the other movies he has made before we see it… just, you know, for context. (While applying a totally made up rating system, of course). Follow along with us.

By the time 1998 rolled around, Linklater was indie-famous and successful, coming off of his collaboration with a similarly hot young talent, Eric Bogosian (up next!). And so, the Hollywood powers that be gave him a whole bunch of money and a cast of handsome young stars who are so perfectly of that specific moment (check out that poster for crying out loud) to make a big budget old west gangster period piece. Sounds fun. Surely The Newton Boys is an undiscovered late 90’s gem you’ve just never heard of, right?

Unfortunately for us, them, and film history – no, it’s not.  There’s a reason you haven’t heard of it. It sucks.

Who is the protagonist? Who is the film about?

Undoubtedly Willis Newton (McConaughey) – a former felon with a chip on his shoulder who decides that stealing money sounds a lot cooler than having a job. Surprise: it is! So he loops in his brothers, invests in nitroglycerin, and sets his sights on blowing up all the safes he can find in his endless pursuit for more and more and more and more money. An appropriate American hero, I guess.

Who/what is the antagonist – or propels the action?

Generally, the law – though the law doesn’t have a specific face or name or even come from a specific governmental agency that ever seems like it matters. If you’re thinking this sounds like a problem for a narrative-driven cowboy gangster movie, you’re right.

Midnight Cinematic Index (MCI) Rating

Characters: 1

Seems our young stars are giving it all they’ve got – but sadly, their portrayals remain mundanely one-dimensional. McConaughey is the hot shot mastermind, Hawke is the gregarious drunk, Ulrich has the heart of gold and D’Onofrio is, well… the oaf-ish one, I guess. Their main interests seem to be having money, roughhousing, horseplay, and the ladies. Sure, they don’t kill people while robbing banks – but that is only because it would be too inconvenient for them. They’re too greedy to root for, but too silly to despise, and the movie doesn’t seem to have an opinion about which way you should lean. Fun trivia, though: the Boys are from Uvalde, Texas – which is Matthew McConaughey’s real home town! And the oil rig guy he punches is his brother IRL. So there’s that.

Style: 2

At the time, critics went crazy about how beautifully intricate the period details of the film were…. Maybe if you’re a real nerd for the prohibition era, you’ll agree. The sets and costumes are sharp and the horn-heavy jazz bop is wailing, but unfortunately the 90’s drama orchestral score is always playing too.

Structure: 1.5

The film suffers in many ways from its absence of an opinion about whether it is a drama or a comedy, but I think its structure suffers the most. Scenes feel strung together without a sense of the passage of time, the stakes at any given moment, or how we – as the audience – should feel about them.

Ideas: 0.5

Texas cowboy gangster brothers (+Dwight Yoakum) robbing banks and getting away with it!? This movie should’ve been so fun! The story sounds interesting on the surface, but unfortunately there just isn’t that much drama to go around. Stealing, getting away with it, getting caught, plus Matthew McConaughey and Julianna Marguiles – who have subzero chemistry – try to convince us that they’re in love. That really is pretty much everything that happened – the rest is just horseplay and roughhousing.

Midnight Rating: 1

The novelized biography the film was based on was written by a beloved San Antonio journalist (and mentor to many successful writers), and the Texans who have reviewed it on Amazon liked it a lot. If you’re dying to immerse yourself in a story about criminals caught between the Wild West and Al Capone, my advice to you is to check out the book instead and let me know what you think.

Linklaterism Bonus: 14%

For mildly threatening hyper-masculinity, Texas.

Overall: 1.368

The Newton Boys is rentable (Vudu, Google Play, iTunes), but we can’t recommend it unless you’re truly a die-hard Ethan Hawke fan. He’s pretty good. Otherwise, skip it and spend your money watching Dazed and Confused again.

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