13 June 2009

THE NEWTON BOYS (Dir. Richard Linklater, 1998, US) - 'The banks have been dealing dirt to our people since before we was born...'

The film borrows liberally from a range of American genres including the gangster film and western

Savaged by critics upon its release, Richard Linklater's 1998 period crime drama, 'The Newton Boys' failed to make an impact at the box office, grossing a measly $10 million from what was at the time, Linklater's biggest budget. A studio film with a youthful ensemble cast made up of Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke, well directed action sequences, strong production values and with an emerging American indie film maker at the helm, one would expect for such a studio friendly vehicle to do well at the box office. However, Linklater's film literally sank without a trace in the summer of 1998. But why? Okay, so the film didn't receive the fondest of critical receptions for another genre picture but this is only because most critics were somewhat baffled by Linklater's unsound commercial decision to want to make a character study of the infamous Newton boys who are still considered to be America's most successful bank robbers. Now, had Linklater chosen to go down to the generic route of utilising overworked action tropes like slow motion, absurdly staged action sequences, grand standing moments and a sentimental story about brotherly love then he might have won over the critics and audiences alike, but this isn't Michael Bay or D J Caruso we are talking about here, this is Richard Linklater, one of the key figures of the American independent scene in the 1980s and one of those rare American film makers who has been able to sustain a successful film career by cleverly outwitting the studios by alternating between indie projects and more generic, mainstream films.

Linklater's first big budget studio film involved the construction of expensive sets, replicating the 1920s

No film maker has made a finer film on youth anxieties than Linklater with his nineties masterpiece, 'Dazed and Confused'. It is disappointing that 'The Newton Boys' quickly became a DVD afterthought as I suspect 2oth Century Fox had no real idea of how they were going to market a film in which the central characters not only justify their decision to rob banks but also achieve a kind of catharsis at their trial and are subsequently immortalised as American legends. Had the film been released today then it might have stood a stronger chance of making some money and finding a sizable mainstream audience. With Michael Mann's 'Public Enemies' due for release later next month and society in the midst of an economic crisis, many would argue that the notion of robbing banks is a fascinating aspect of the crime film genre and may even prey upon our desires to get even with the bankers and financiers who have managed to evade the question of public accountability. It's a lot like Willis Newton (Matthew McConaughey) says in the film to his brothers, 'The banks have been dealing dirt to our people since before we was born. It's time we dealt some back'. I guess that's why we as spectators guiltily extract some kind of twisted gratification by wanting to sympathise and side with the anti-hero even if they are on the wrong side of the law.

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