Up a Lazy River
Andrew Tracy on The Newton Boys

Put plainly, The Newton Boys is a film with the wind knocked out of its sails, and the enervating experience of actually sitting through it unfortunately blunts some of the value it does have to offer. An account of the most successful bank robbers in the history of the United States, brothers Willis (Matthew McConaughey), Jess (Ethan Hawke), Joe (Skeet Ulrich), Dock (Vincent D’Onofrio) and their safecracker accomplice Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam), Linklater’s first higher-budgeted studio picture and first outright flop cannot, unfortunately, be explained away by blaming the Hollywood money men. Linklater’s personal stamp is all over the film, in the screenplay which he co-wrote with longtime collaborator Clark Lee Walker and Claude Stanush (author of the film’s source book), in the casting of McConaughey and Hawke in principal roles, and in the film’s rambling pace—which in this instance, unlike Linklater’s other work, reveals a rather hazy conception of what he’s doing. Even if we can overcome this central flaw and simply luxuriate in the film’s strikingly recreated period décor and evident fascination with the physical environment of America in the Twenties—the keystone of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s persuasive and aggressively sympathetic review of the film—almost any viewer (or critic) will concede that, quite simply, it ain’t enough: either to maintain our interest or give credence to the notion that Linklater possessed a unified idea of the film as he was making it.

Harsh words aside, we’re not simply deciding where to place the blame. What’s interesting about the film—and yes, there is much of interest in it—is how its quite palpable dullness nevertheless manages to frustrate the various narratives which we would seek to impose upon it. How does one read The Newton Boys? As a mangled auteur film, a mediocre studio picture, a genre flick by a director who doesn’t understand the genre, a historical reverie interrupted by the banal necessities of narrative? If The Newton Boys is, in general, a bore, the reasons behind its being so are not; and all those categories in which it is not successful reflexively casts personality and detail upon its reasons for not being. Where so many Hollywood films fail because their makers have willfully imprisoned themselves, The Newton Boys fails because it tries to exert too many freedoms at once.

Freedom, after all, is Linklater’s primary concern and guiding voice, not only in the loose-limbed structure he so frequently adopts, but in what I see as the emotional and intellectual core of his films: his callowness, and his assertion of his freedom to be callow. This is not a putdown. Where the majority of Hollywood films try to make us believe that we’re all morons (thus displaying their own repellent stupidity) or flatter us by stroking our narcissism, stifling our curiosity and keeping us smug and complacent (à la Tarantino), Linklater addresses us as fellow human beings with the insight and awareness to recognize our own limits and the need to try and move beyond them. There is no sense of judgment or insistence in even the heaviest moments of precocious philosophizing, and this is what makes Linklater’s callowness charming, even moving, rather than insufferable: emotional truth trumps easy answers or posing attitudes. Without making a soppy show of it, humility and generosity are Linklater’s bywords. Cutting against the Hollywood grain, he embraces the promise of the collective—even as that collective repeatedly fails to get its act together—over the isolating cult of the individual.

Similarly defying the cult of genre, all Linklater’s films—whether “teen movies,” “romances,” “comedies,” “dramas,” or even “Linklater films”—tend towards an immersion in mood and feeling, a kind of holistic empathy which often refuses to draw the firm lines of story and style which we expect. Consequently, characterization—another branch of narrative—has never been Linklater’s strong suit. Even the recognizable “types” in Dazed and Confused or the necessarily defined leads of a two-character piece like Before Sunrise are more the emanations of a collective, musing voice than distinctive selves, a thematic strength but a dramatic defect which Linklater has overcome with the aid of warm, expressive actors (Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise, McConaughey in The Newton Boys, the ensembles in Dazed and SubUrbia). In an emotional, rather than a grandiosely metaphysical sense, Linklater consistently places identity (in all its forms) in flux: certainties gently dissolve, conclusions are never reached, the future remains open. The sub-L’Eclisse ending of Before Sunrise, regarding the now-empty locations through which Hawke and Delpy have moved, is wistful but not nostalgic—not merely confined to the past, these spaces remain charged with possibility, undefined but ever-present. As his own monologue at the beginning of Slacker establishes, Linklater’s freedom is one of incessant questions, ceaseless alternatives, and this, for better or worse, is what makes Waking Life the archetypal Linklater film (which, appropriately, is dependent upon software designer Bob Sabiston and the thirty-plus collaborators who designed and implemented the film’s animation): a succession of shifting identities watch, listen, converse, argue, separate, merge, and ultimately blend into an ever-fluctuating, ever-renewing plane of existence.

This fascination with blurring identities may explain one of the chief flaws of The Newton Boys, namely the virtual indistinguishability of the brothers. The kind of barnstorming period piece we expect thrives on vivid characters drawn with strong, clean lines, and apart from McConaughey’s ingratiating charm, the Newtons all tend to adopt the same tone of rustic insouciance, with an occasional outburst of rather artificial high spirits. If we wish to be charitable, perhaps we can explain this as Linklater attempting to avoid the tired character molds demanded by Hollywood filmmaking, just as the real Newtons defied the fatalistically predictable narrative so many of their contemporaries fell victim to. That the Newtons killed nary a soul in their heyday, suffered only one near-fatality (accidentally inflicted at the hands of an accomplice), and all lived to a ripe old age deflates that much-desired “story arc” within which Hollywood screenwriters like to confine real life. This perhaps more than anything turned critics against the film: unfavorable comparisons to Bonnie and Clyde ran rampant, as if faulting the Newtons for not having the thoughtfulness to go down in a hail of bullets.

Yet it’s quite possible that this is why Linklater became interested in the project in the first place. Over the final credits, Linklater inserts footage of the real Joe Newton being interviewed by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, and Willis speaking in the documentary The Newton Boys: Portrait of an Outlaw Gang. Unlike Fernando Meirelles’s City of God, which exploits historical footage to give a sheen of veracity to its stylistic wankery and confine the film’s events to an untouchable past, Linklater uses his documentary material as a further link to the past that he has been recreating. The words of the actual Newtons “backing up” the film’s events are not as important as the continued existence of these men in what we regard as our time. Similarly, the conventional onscreen capsules summing up the fates of the various characters contain an unusual amount of detail, tracing connections with other historical figures and even further criminal exploits by the then septuagenarian brothers. In the final minutes of the film, Linklater seems almost unwilling to let it end, wanting to bask in the wonder that Twenties outlaws could exist in the days of talk shows and celebrity culture.

If Linklater has any coherent purpose in The Newton Boys, it’s this fascination with the physical and temporal overlap between the modern world and the past, and the desire to recreate that past in all its tangible physicality—to marvel at how the world once was, how things looked and felt in a time both unimaginably distant and far closer than we think. “The movie expresses and generates a sustained curiosity about and fascination with the way streets, clothes, hotel lobbies and bedrooms, banks, storefronts, speakeasies, cars, trains, houses, oil wells, and bathtubs looked in the late teens and early Twenties,” writes Rosenbaum. “Such details as an early passing street scene of three little girls performing for the Baptist Orphans Relief Fund, an array of magazines at a cigar stand, and a weathered and tattered Wild West show the gang briefly visits illustrate the sort of intricate filigree at which the movie excels.” At its best, The Newton Boys attains a degree of period recreation comparable to Chinatown: meticulous without being showy, polished and idealized without tipping over into mythic abstraction. Like the earlier film, Linklater also evokes the texture of the filmmaking of the period, Chinatown’s elegant Thirties-style black-and-white opening credits matched by the scratchy Twenties title cards (complete with “Passed by the National Board of Review” inscribed at the bottom) and actor/character introductions of The Newton Boys.

Beyond these respective window dressings, though, the films decisively separate in both intent and result. Conceptually, Polanski and Towne are working on a far more stringent, confining program than Linklater, distilling the mythic essence of the private eye genre in the service of a social myth, writing our narratives for us. Linklater, far more open and generous, tries to subvert both genre myths and social myths both into a consideration of place and time, texture dissolving deterministic narrative. Unfortunately, Linklater lacks the key virtue of the Chinatown team: their penetrating focus, surely navigating their labyrinthine plot and exquisitely turning each character and scene to compose a miniature crystallization of the world they have created. Saddled with plot necessities and genre expectations with which he is manifestly uncomfortable, Linklater doesn’t possess the force and decisiveness to turn these burdens to his own ends. No matter the lovingly recreated world they move through, the film’s sketchy characters cannot convey the wondrous sense of possibility which Linklater finds in the early decades of the 20th century—a freedom which his modern-day slackers see steadily slipping away at the century’s end. Instead of trying to contain and define the past, either through rank nostalgia or the pasting on of contemporary sensibilities, Linklater attempts to revel in it, celebrate and revive its ecstatic potential. But the weight of his numerous roles—archivist, storyteller, genre director, and humanist—proves too much to handle. Muffled by Linklater’s confusion and inexperience, The Newton Boys lopes pallidly along, without even the consideration to be an outright failure.

There is that one scene, though—one marvelously conceived and executed sequence where we get a glimpse of what the movie could have been. In Toronto (city o’ my heart), the boys stage a bold daylight robbery, intercepting three bags of cash being carried by uniformed officers through the streets. . . but the anticipated cakewalk goes awry when the “dumb bastard Canucks” don’t know enough to drop the loot when a shotgun is shoved in their face. For a filmmaker whose gifts are not primarily visual, Linklater here displays the skill of an Old Hollywood virtuoso coupled with the idiosyncratic eye of a true auteur: the old-style movie iconography of the brothers hopping down from their car, guns at their sides; the brilliant intercutting between the three separate hold-ups; the all-too-real clumsiness of both the crooks and the cops; the visceral thrill of a newspaper stand blown apart by a shotgun blast; and all of this bound together by richly tactile detail, the neatly aligned streets and bland prettiness of the once and future Hogtown in the Twenties. In this one centerpiece sequence, Linklater draws all of his projects together with real cinematic flair: history, genre, narrative and personal vision converge in an outburst of pure movie-movie energy which Linklater wouldn’t equal again until the finale of School of Rock. For a director most comfortable when drowning his movies in talk, Linklater’s high points—the bowling ball going through the windshield in Dazed, Jack Black’s spectacular stage dive in School, Wiley Wiggins’s animated surrogate drifting up towards infinity in Waking Life—often exist beyond words, in a liberating rush of physical and emotional energy. And for five minutes or so, in the midst of this otherwise plodding and confused film, The Newton Boys has it in spades.