By Eric Anderson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
April 2, 1998

Breaking the bank


Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
Arizona Daily Wildcat

The Newton gang, played by (l-r) Skeet Ulrich, Dwight Yoakam, Matthew McConaughey, Vincent D'Onofrio and Ethan Hawke, plan a robbery in Richard Linklater's "The Newton Boys."

Calamity Jane. Jesse James. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

When one thinks of the infamous Old West, these are the names that flow through one's mind.

But compared to the Newton Boys, they were all mediocre at best.

After all, success in the art of bank robbery means getting away with it clean, not gaining fame and notoriety through "wanted" posters, as so many gunslingers did.

The Newton Boys successfully robbed over 80 banks from Texas to Canada from 1919-1924, capping their career with the largest train robbery in American history.

Now, their story has been brought to the big screen in "The Newton Boys," thanks to director/screenwriter Richard Linklater ("Slacker"; "Dazed and Confused"). Linklater cast Matthew McConaughey (who previously teamed up with the director as the overaged stoner, Wooderson, in "Dazed and Confused") as Willis Newton, the eldest brother and surrogate leader of the group. The rest of the boys are played by Ethan Hawke (Jess Newton), Vincent D'Onofrio (Dock Newton), and Skeet Ulrich (Joe Newton).

Rounding out the gang is Brentwood Glasscock, a nitroglycerin expert played by actor/musician Dwight Yoakam, who many will remember as the abusive boyfriend in "Sling Blade."

The film chronicles the gang's life of crime, as it successfully, and somewhat quietly, robs small banks in small towns. Snatching $10,000 to $20,000 at a time, always saying "please" and "thank you," and amazingly never killing a single person. The gang members approach their work methodically, taking anything and everything they can at each stop. The way they see it, it isn't like the money belongs to anyone; it's the bank's money and therefore, it's insured. So the only ones who really lose any money are the insurance companies.

McConaughey, who coincidentally shares the same hometown of Uvalde, Texas with the Newtons, is engaging and believable as Willis (the natural Texas accent probably doesn't hurt). The same goes for Ulrich, who does a good job of developing the young, good-hearted, but somewhat naive Joe into a character that the audience is able to sympathize with and relate to.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said of Hawke and D'Onofrio. You wouldn't think it would be difficult for Hawke to sell his role as the fun-lovin' party boy of the group, but he does little to help out in the role of Jess, and it doesn't help that his very unnatural accent seems to miraculously disappear on more than one occasion. As far as D'Onofrio, it's unlikely that he could have done anything more to strengthen or weaken the underwritten and undeveloped role of Dock.

Julianna Margulies ("ER") does a good job as Louise Brown, Willis Newton's love interest and, believe it or not, Yoakam even gives a surprisingly solid performance as well.

At the end of the film, as the credits roll, actual clips are shown of the real Willis Newton telling the tale of the Newtons from his living room sometime in the '70s, as well as a 1989 clip from "The Tonight Show" when Johnny Carson interviewed Jess Newton, decades after the brothers had hung up their pistols.

Though this is a Hollywood rendition of a true story, the film doesn't stray from the facts, and the law eventually does catch up with the gang. But the Newton Boys were as crafty in capture as they were in their work. They were able to strike a deal and after relatively short sentences, the boys returned to their hometown of Uvalde, where they were all able to do something very few people in their line of work are able to do - reach a ripe, old age.


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