The Newton Boys

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgas..., Common Sense Media
The Newton Boys Movie Poster Image
Fact-based, slow-paced '90s Western has some violence.
  • PG-13
  • 1998
  • 122 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

If you steal from thieves it's OK. It's not honorable to squeal on co-conspirators. The game is rigged by the big guys against the little guys. Banks are dishonest and take advantage of those who aren't rich and powerful.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Willis is supposedly the brains of the operation, but his planning is slapdash and he makes big changes at the last moment, which leads to disaster. He believes that stealing is OK if it's from bad guys, as long as he decides who the bad guys are. The brothers value family loyalty above the law or, sometimes, good sense.
 

Violence

A bank robber gets shot in the face by a member of his gang who panics. Blood is seen. A cowboy bites a horse's ear. A Native American is kept out of a bar because he isn't white, so he buys the bar. The Newtons and cohorts use nitroglycerin to blow open safes.

Sex

Dancers wear bras and short skirts as they perform in saloons and speakeasies. Willis falls in love with Louise. The brothers swim nude in a river. Most are seen from the chest up, but one does a back flip. A man kisses a woman in a car.
 

Language

"Bastard," "s--t," "bitch," "hell," "fruity," "fart," "douche bag."
 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults smoke cigarettes, chew tobacco, and drink alcohol.
 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Newton Boys is a 1998 feature by director Richard Linklater. It's an affectionate recounting of the life and times of the Newton Boys, four real-life bank- and train-robbing Texas cowboys. They achieved 1924 infamy when they were caught after robbing a federal postal train carrying millions. Although they carried guns during the robberies, they never killed anyone. The most violent scene here involves a non-family gang member mistakenly shooting one of the Newtons, seriously but not fatally. Blood is seen. Dancing girls are seen in a saloon wearing bras and short skirts, and characters smoke cigarettes, chew tobacco, and drink alcohol. Expect to hear "s--t," "bastard," and "bitch."

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What's the story?

Willis Newton (Matthew McConaughey) comes home to small-town Texas from jail, only to invite his younger cowboy brothers, Joe (Skeet Ulrich) and Jess (Ethan Hawke),  to join him in a glamorous life of bank-robbing fun. When Dock (Vincent D'Onofrio), the eldest, gets sprung from the slammer, he joins in what is now the family business. After Willis, with all the winking charm and fast talk of a snake oil salesman, persuades them that stealing from thieves (bankers) is an honorable line of work, they embark on a spree of 1920s bank heists through several states. This puts them on the federal authorities' radar. Banks get wise and switch to more secure round safes, which are harder to blow, redirecting the gang's interest to trains. By the time they knock over a mail train carrying millions in 1924, the feds are just waiting for them to make a mistake. In this case, a non-family gang member gets trigger-happy and shoots Dock in the face, which ruins the getaway plans.  After all the perps are apprehended, they are pressured to rat on one another, but these thieves are too decent for that. Jess delivers to the court such a charming, aw shucks guilty plea that he ends up with a brief, nine-month sentence. Titles explain that Willis served only four years and then returned to Texas where he ran bars and gambling establishments. He and his brothers all lived to "ripe old ages," with Joe appearing on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. Footage from a 1976 documentary about them is shown as the closing credits roll.

Is it any good?

The greatest appeal of THE NEWTON BOYS is the collective charm of its four handsome young leads, wearing pretty costumes and having a good ol' time with Texas accents, shotguns, and cowboy hats. Otherwise the movie often feels as if it's meandering from one fact-based event to another, without much regard for how it ought to instead add up to an artfully told, well-constructed story. Willis' romance with Louise (the wasted Julianna Margulies) feels strained and irrelevant, with McConaughey expressing vacant-eyed love and Margulies smiling, the entire relationship completely devoid of any discernible chemistry.

While this is neither a drama nor a comedy, it wants to be both, like the two far superior movies it recalls, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. Perhaps the filmmakers felt constrained by a desire to adhere to actual historical events. If only they could have found a way to do that and still move the action along in a more disciplined and less plodding manner. It feels like it's at least a solid half-hour too long.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the way the Newtons justify robbing banks. One says he's just a thief stealing from another thief, because banks have questionable money-making practices and are insured for loss, which passes the expense of robbery onto insurance companies. Do you think the Newtons' excuses made it OK to steal?

  • The Newtons robbed more than 30 banks and went to prison after robbing a federal postal train. After they served prison time, all went back to relatively law-abiding lives. Do you think the movie suggests that they broke the law at least partly because it was exciting, rather than because they had no other way to make a living?

  • Does the movie glamorize iffy behavior? Why or why not?

Movie details

For kids who love westerns and adventure

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