Review: The Newton Boys (1998)

Left to right: Joe Newton (Skeet Ulrich), Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam), and Willis Newton (Matthew McConaughey).

The Newton Boys, Richard Linklater’s 1998 film about a group of outlaw brothers who rob banks, is a lacklustre heist picture, but the late-nineties cast still makes the movie a modest pleasure to watch. Set in the late teens and early twenties, and ranging from Texas, to Omaha, to Toronto, the film tells the amusing story of the Newton Gang, who are apparently the most successful bank and train robbers in American history.

Matthew McConaughey, who first appeared in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), plays Willis Newton, who, through a miscarriage of justice (or so he claims), has seen any legitimate-work aspirations forever diminished by a stint in prison. The film opens with Willis arriving back at the Newton family farm one day, where his younger brothers, Jess and Joe, are horsing around. Linklater favourite, Ethan Hawke, plays Jess, and 90s up-and-comer Skeet Ulrich plays Joe. Vincent D’Onofrio plays the fourth, and presumably oldest, brother Dock, who appears later on in the film. Dock seems to have also been in prison, but the film in general is pretty inept at connecting scenes and making all the details clear.

Similar to the murky arrival of Doc, we are left to surmise that Willis met the bank robbers he is now involved with while he was in prison. After a daytime bank robbery goes disastrously wrong, though, Willis and nitroglycerin-expert Brentwood Glasscock (country music singer-songwriter Dwight Yoakam) decide to form a gang that robs banks using brains more than guns. They will case locations, plan the details of jobs, and generally avoid daytime shoot-’em-up-style robberies. Willis recruits Jess and Joe, and soon “the Newton gang” is looting banks across the midwest. Oddly, the gang’s big rule that they won’t kill anyone is only indirectly addressed early on, although later in the film they state it more directly. With the lack of clarity surrounding the “rule,” Linklater might be suggesting that the boys only sort of follow it, but at other times it seems to be what sets them apart.

The Newton gang’s rule that they won’t kill anyone doesn’t stop them from shooting a couple people (in arms, etc.), and they do beat up a load of Toronto police at one point. In this particular sequence, a big score leads the boys up to Toronto—and I certainly hope that someone puts together a YouTube montage of all McConaughey’s digs at Canadians (“those dick Canucks,” etc.). Another subplot involves McConaughey pursuing a gal, The Good Wife’s Julianna Margulies.

Unfortunately, the actual heists are never as engaging as watching the brothers roughhouse, or seeing McConaughey work his charm. In fact, McConaughey is so enjoyable that, if anything, The Newton Boys is mostly remarkable as further evidence that McConaughey has been in fine form well before the “McConnaissance.” Hawke is clearly having a hoot, but he isn’t given a whole lot to do besides drink and joke. Ulrich’s Joe is supposed to be the conscience of the gang, and D’Onofrio’s Doc does little during the robberies except receive a critical wound.

This is a true story, of sorts. Real, late-in-life footage of some of the brothers, from an appearance on the Johnny Carson show and a documentary, attest to some of the key robberies and actually help clarify some of the themes that are introduced earlier on. Despite the explanations from the real persons and a few charged speeches by McConaughey, though, the film’s not too interested in the Robin Hood angle of the characters (that they’re just poor folk stealing from crooked bankers, who are all insured anyways), nor does the film seem very interested in putting together thrilling heist scenes. Linklater has never been one for tight plotting, and his artistic tendency to avoid narrative clarity, along with his lack of talent for action filmmaking generally, really diminish the potential of this particular bank robbery story. Linklater is known for his loose, character-driven films, and so it is unsurprising if still disappointing that, with The Newton Boys, Linklater is chiefly concerned with showing the gang having fun.

5 out of 10

The Newton Boys (1998, USA)

Directed by Richard Linklater; screenplay by Clark Lee Walker and Richard Linklater; starring Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dwight Yoakam, and Julianna Margulies.  

About Anton

An admirer of classical cinema, Anton is generally traditional, but he also enjoys poetic filmmaking, new cinematic techniques and technology, and narrative experimentation. He greatly values the visual aspect of a motion picture, as well as the storytelling and editing. Fascinated by archetypes, he is also interested in the construction of genre. Though he likes science fiction, fantasy, and epics, he is an omnivorous film watcher. He hails from the Prairies but currently resides in Toronto, Ontario. Some of his favourite movies are: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, Rear Window, Schindler's List, Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope. His favourite directors include: Hitchcock, Lucas, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Nolan, Spielberg, and Welles.