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THE NEWTON BOYS

by: Scott Renshaw

The Newton Boys illustrates that it's possible to make a film about gangsters and gunplay without an abundance of bloodshed, violence, and death.  In fact, for this account, which depicts "the true story of the most successful bank robbers in the history of the United States," director Richard Linklater has consciously kept the tone playful. That's not to say that The Newton Boys doesn't have its grim moments, but Linklater limits the shadows.  The result is a fast-paced, entertaining motion picture that replaces gritty tension with a lightly- dramatic character interaction that occasionally borders on straight comedy.

The real Newton Boys started their crime spree in 1919, and finished it five years later, in 1924.  During that time, the four brothers -- Joe (Skeet Ulrich), Jesse (Ethan Hawke), Willis (Matthew McConaughey), and Dock (Vincent D'Onofrio) -- and explosives expert Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam) broke into more than 80 banks and committed the largest train robbery in U.S. history - - the famous June 12, 1924 Rondout Robbery.  Their illegal activities took them from their native Texas, through dozens of small towns and major cities all across the country, and into Canada.  Linklater's film recounts the Newton gang's exploits with all of the fondness of a grandfather relating a favorite story to a child.

One thing that differentiates the Newton Boys from America's numerous, other well-known bandits is that they never killed anyone.  They used guns, but rarely fired them, and almost never at a living target.  All they wanted was the money, and they were often kind to the men they held at gunpoint.  Moreover, they viewed themselves as champions of the undertrodden -- little thieves stealing from big thieves (the companies insuring the banks). Linklater presents all four brothers as happy, good-natured fellows -- the kind of guys no one would mind hanging out with. 

The violence in the film is kept to a minimum, and, while The Newton Boys depicts a few of the robberies from start-to-finish, most transpire as part of a montage that shows images of money, exploding safes, and newspaper headlines.  The film's narrative spotlight shines brightest on Willis, but finds time to illuminate the other three brothers, as well. Since it spans a five-year period, The Newton Boys is understandably episodic.  Several key events from the characters' lives are highlighted.  There's even time for a love story -- that of Willis and an attractive single mother (Julianna Margulies) he falls for in Omaha. 

To emphasize The Newton Boys' cheerful nature, Danny Barnes' score remains upbeat.  Linklater opens the film to this music with credits designed to evoke memories of the silent era.  The end credits are no less interesting, since they feature a series of video clips of interviews with the real Willis and Joe (the former from a 1975 documentary; the latter from an appearance on an episode of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson).  In addition to assuring that no one will leave the movie early, these excerpts deepen the sense of closure offered by the series of captions that finish the narrative. 

None of the actors in The Newton Boys gives a standout performance, but no one seems miscast, either.  Linklater has gone with a group of hot, young stars. Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, and Skeet Ulrich are all desirable names to have on a marquee. The lower-profile Vincent D'Onofrio (last seen as the hulking villain in Men in Black) gives the strongest performance of the lead quartet, and Dwight Yoakam proves that his work in Sling Blade wasn't a fluke.  Julianna Margulies, the E.R. actress who is beginning to forge a big-screen name for herself, provides solid support for the mostly-male cast.

The film is something of a departure for

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