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Tucson Weekly Criminal Cuties

"The Newton Boys" successfully goes against all conventional notions of morality.

By Stacey Richter

APRIL 6, 1998:  Richard Linklater has finally abandoned the niche he's carved for himself as the director of hip little movies about alienated white kids. With The Newton Boys, he's left behind a string of coming-of-age films like Slacker, SubUrbia, and Before Sunrise (which all take place during 24 hour time periods) and voyaged into the comparatively unhip territory of history. As it turns out, Linklater actually can make a movie that spans more than one day, with characters who are not wearing ripped jeans, and he can do it well. With The Newton Boys, Linklater shows that he's not just a good, young director. He's a good director.

It's too bad that a movie with so much charm has such a dismal trailer. I almost didn't see it at all because I couldn't get that cloying moment from the commercial out of my head, where Julianna Margulies says "You're crazy!" while reclining on top of Matthew McConaughey in a bathtub. Contrary to such advertising, The Newton Boys is not an insipid love story. It is, instead, an outlaw movie, in the mold of Bonnie and Clyde or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but without the last vestiges of pesky morality that cling to those stories.

The Newton Boys were a real-life gang of bank robbers who approached their calling as if it were an ordinary profession. Their strong Puritan work ethic earned them the slogan "the most successful bank robbers in American history," and they never did much jail time for their crimes. The movie portrays them as a group of Teen Beat cowboys with chiseled cheek bones and sunny dispositions. The eldest, Willis (Matthew McConaughey), decides to devote his life to crime and persuades his brothers to join him, which they do after a little prodding. Then they drive around in flashy, '20s clothing, robbing banks at night, with explosives--none of this stick-'em up crap--and face relatively few obstacles.

The interesting thing about both the movie (and the history of the Newton Boys) is that it seems to go against all conventional notions of morality, not to mention common sense. For these brothers, crime does pay. They make bank robbing look like a nifty idea, and the risks seem small in proportion to the payoff. The actors who portray the criminals are notoriously good-looking young men: Skeet Ulrich, Ethan Hawke, and Vincent D'Onofrio round out the cast; and they all have pleasant, if rascally, personalities. The dialogue in this movie has the glib smoothness of a forgettable Hollywood classic. Nothing sticks out or sounds awkward, but nothing really shines, either. The combined effect of all this smooth handsomeness is like stepping into a heated swimming pool--it's just...pleasant. With this calm background, Linklater confirms what we've always suspected: Nice boys can be sociopaths, too.

There's none of this searching-for-motives routine other crime movies indulge in. The boys rob banks because they want to get some money. There's no psycho-sexual origin story, as in Bonnie and Clyde or Bloody Mama. There's no they-had-no-choice rationale, as in Thelma and Louise. Linklater has completely ditched the conventional morality cycle of the outlaw movie. With other famous movie thieves--Butch Cassidy, et. al.--we were on the bad guys' side, but their sins were so egregious that they had to die at the end to set things right. Even though those bank robbers meant well, or loved each other, or whatever, those criminals were still, well, criminals. But the Newton Boys are too cute to die. They're too efficient to get caught. Even in the roaring age of prohibition and big-time gangsterism, they can't even manage to kill anybody.  

This portrayal of the Newton brothers as blessed and protected golden boys would probably be annoying if it weren't at least somewhat true. It seems they really didn't kill anybody, or deprive widows of their life savings. To shore up his point of view, Linklater wisely includes clips from TV interviews with a couple of the real Newton Boys at the end of the film (one with Johnny Carson). They come off as a couple of charming old cowboys. Watching them, it seems entirely plausible that they did stumble into a life of crime with no true malice in their hearts. What could be cuter than an 80-year-old reformed gangster?

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