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When you look at Linklater’s IMDB page, 1998’s The Newton Boys is likely going to read as a punchline. On paper, that makes sense; it was his first foray into big-budget filmmaking, and its marketing campaign was entirely centered on its heartthrob-of-the-moment cast (Ethan Hawke, Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, I don’t think Vincent D’Onofrio counts), advertising the movie as a banal period comedy-action movie. The misrepresentation it received, I believe, drove away its potential audience while simultaneously alienating its “target demographic.” The film ultimately became just another flop you vaguely remember. The ads made the movie seem like it was going to be a big romp, but really it’s more of a lark, as breezy and easygoing as a movie about federal crimes could conceivably get, entirely in line with Linklater’s naturalistic, people-oriented sensibility.

The Newton Boys tells the true tale of a cadre of bank-robbing brothers who, from 1919-1924, took in dozens of major hauls, including the biggest train robbery in American history, all without killing a single person. A bunch of good ol’ boys, they took pains to be polite to their victims and the guilty plea they filed when finally caught combined with their charisma to ensure that none of them ended up serving more than a few years, all of them living well into their golden years mostly as non-criminals. The movie skips a lot of the exposition, family history and such, and gets straight into the premise. Willis Newton (McConaughey) just got out of jail, his older brother Dock (D’Onofrio) is still in it, and his two younger brothers, Jess (Hawke) and Joe (Skeet), are looking after their mother; Willis gets pulled into a bank robbery plot almost straight out the gate and, when his accomplices ask for some extra manpower, he decides to include his brothers this time. That’s all.

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Linklater skips past a lot of stuff, documenting only a few key robberies in the gang’s five-year career, and spending a lot of time focusing on how the boys are dealing with their new found trade and their success on a smaller scale. Jess takes to it quickly, in the middle of their very first robbery, joking around, making a game of it. He cracks wise at the witnesses shouting from their windows, and doesn’t flinch at being shot at. A few scenes later a knock at the door causes him to fix his gun upon it so quickly it must have been Pavlovian response. He talks about living this life, the one he’s had for a day, until it kills him. Joe, on the other hand, has a deep-set opposition to it, which his passivity can’t do anything about. The boys laugh and carouse, and we are invited to join them; there’s a whiff of Malick around the whole thing.

We don’t get a real sense of what kind of a family this is until Dock gets out of jail. He comes to reunite with his brothers and doesn’t even recognize Ulrich, not even faintly. Willis hadn’t been home in years before this, and when he gets out of prison he only stays home one night. You get a sense that these brothers are half-pursuing this line of business in order to secure themselves a sense of family that they never had, by pretending that they always have. Despite being a Depression-era picture, it makes almost no efforts to comment upon or reflect the era’s economic climate, instead focusing on the subject of family, and on the subject of storytelling. Everyone involved has an image they’d like to uphold. Joe tricks himself into believing he isn’t a criminal by assuming a position of righteousness about it, Jess tricks himself into believing he’s been an outlaw his whole life, simply by assuming the persona. Willis seems to want the same thing a lot of people want today, some manifestation of the American Dream, a wife, a kid, an oilrig he’s saving up money for. His girlfriend, Louise (Julianna Margulies), has a son, and the family-unit simulacrum that springs up from that (one he can duck away from at whatever point he chooses to go rob some banks) gives him the opportunity to escape into yet another fiction – the father, the gang leader, the model businessman. Even knowing Louise was predicated on his stories; he endears himself to her by telling her friends a preposterous story about the circumstances under which they’d “met,” 16 years prior.

The film feels at odds with itself sometimes, indulging in obligatory genre tropes, like the flapper chanteuse at the hotel bar, or the we’re-having-fun-with-all-the-money-we-got montage, but its sense of artistry, its pace and naturalism, regain its footing. Even though the aforementioned montage has the sort of stereotypical ragtime music you’d expect going under it, it’s cinematically a pretty stunning and beautiful piece of work, indulging artfully in all sorts of elaborate old-school superimpositions and visual rhymes, an evocation that goes a long way towards explaining the tone of the sequence (and the film) in a way that the more obvious music could never do. Whether its missteps are the result of studio interference or not is tough to say, and the movie suffers at times from having to deal with certain formulaic plot-points, but it doesn’t have the same sense of pedantry that a lot of these biopics do, instead choosing to honor its subjects by approximating their free-wheeling spirit, and it doesn’t have the sense of weighty seriousness that a lot of crime pictures do, because it knows from the beginning that it’s not a tragedy, but a major triumph resulting from a minor compulsion.

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