The Rick-trospective: The Newton Boys

A salute to Richard Linklater's body of work, one film at a time

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In honor of the November 7 release of Paste Movies Editor Michael Dunaway’s documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater (in which Paste is the media partner), we’re going through the indie master’s entire oeuvre in order, film by amazing film.

Between 1919 and 1924, the Newton Gang—a family owned and run operation based in Uvalde, Texas—robbed over eighty banks and six trains, sparing bloodshed in their outlaw ventures and taking in an astronomical tally of pelf in the process. The sibling quartet—Willis, Wylie, Jess and Joe—cut their legend from the same cloth as Jesse James and Butch Cassidy, sharing more in common with the latter by virtue of their humanitarian ideals; theft is one thing, but killing people is another entirely. Maybe their claims of non-violence are immaterial, maybe not, but go try to prove them wrong a century after the fact, and see how far you get.

Or don’t even bother, because their myth takes on a kind of romanticism when viewed through a contemporary lens. If it’s a lie, it’s a pretty lie. Maybe that’s what drew Richard Linklater to the four brothers and their exploits when he cobbled together his 1998 heist flick, The Newton Boys. Today the film feels like an anomaly in his body of work, a straight-up genre exercise that sticks out like a sore thumb against the vast majority of his catalog. We salute Linklater as a filmmaker primarily for his array of high fallutin’ ramblings on human nature and the meaning of life, whether in Boyhood, the Before trilogy or Waking Life. We do not necessarily think of his name in conjunction with stories about stick ups and car chases.

Look at his IMDB page, though, and there you’ll see The Newton Boys, perhaps one of the least recognized movies Linklater has ever made, occupying space between two watershed moments of his career. It’s an odd man out, for sure, a movie that doesn’t look, sound or feel like a Linklater effort at first blush, and which doesn’t appear as more than a blip on his radar. It’s the very definition of “minor,” being neither up to his usual standards of technical wizardry nor particularly substantive. There is, of course, nothing wrong with occasionally making fluff, and as fluff, The Newton Boys is a pleasant enough two hours that ride chiefly on the charms of the seemingly ageless Matthew McConaughey (and a great supporting turn by the criminally underrated Dwight Yoakam).

But sixteen years have passed since the film’s release, and a steady glance into the rearview reveals a movie that only Linklater could have made. Like many of his early films—Dazed and Confused, Slacker and even Before SunriseThe Newton Boys is a portrait of youthful angst and unrest, couching Willis’ motivations to live a life of crime in his own societal frustrations. In the film’s opening sequence, Willis comes home to brothers Jess (Ethan Hawke) and Joe (Skeet Ulrich), as well as his mother (Gail Cronauer), after a brief (yet all too long) stint in prison. We learn that the man earned his incarceration for a misdeed he professes to be innocent of, a claim which history supports (if only just), and that his marriage has been undone by his father-in-law, who doesn’t approve of his daughter’s union to a convict.

So the system has failed poor Willis, and he determines that the best way to pick himself up is to actually commit wanton acts of larceny. Thus the birth of the Newton Gang, knocking over banks by night and blowing their ill-gotten gains on booze, fine suits, and finer ladies by day. One can see the appeal of dramatizing these men for sheer entertainment value, and maybe in the hands of another—let’s say a Michael Mann type—The Newton Boys would have honed in on that quality, tuned into an action vein and made the picture into a tempo-driven thriller. But where another director might have seen an opportunity for slick set pieces, Linklater instead sees a yarn about youth in revolt. The way Willis bristles at the hand the world has dealt him (which the film best encapsulates in a standout scene between McConaughey and Julianna Marguilies, playing Willis’ long-suffering wife) suggests that he’s not so different from Linklater’s usual protagonists, after all.

And then there’s Texas, the humming locus in so much of of Linklater’s cinema. His love affair with the Lone Star State is as deep and abiding as his passion for heady discourse; it’s probably not unreasonable to suggest that had the Newtons hailed from some other far-flung region of the United States, Linklater might not have felt the same pull to their story. He’s a Texas man, through and through, and The Newton Boys is as much a celebration of his home as it is an examination of how a group of very real men responded to the hard times they grew up in. Texas doesn’t feel like a backdrop here as much as it feels like a member of the cast, a character in its own right, much as it does in, say, this year’s Boyhood or 2011’s Bernie, another true crime biopic nestled cozily within regional Texan society (and made all the richer for it).

The Newton Boys is probably best viewed as that film’s antecedent; it’s Linklater’s first crack at making drama out of notoriety. But it’s also a movie that quietly affirms all of the quirks, details and thematic pursuits that the director makes his bones on today. If it’s an overlooked, lesser entry in his filmography, it’s also just as important to defining him as a narrator as his best received and most widely hailed offerings.

21 Years: Richard Linklater is produced by Tara Wood, Michael Dunaway and Melanie Miller, directed by Dunaway with co-director Tara Wood, and will be released theatrically and on demand through Gravitas Ventures. You can see the trailer and pre-order the film here, and get more info (including links to preview clips) here.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen
Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.