Richard Linklater’s (Somewhat) True Crime Trilogy: Hit Man, Bernie, and The Newton Boys

Over his 35-plus year career, Richard Linklater has managed to oscillate between personal and commercial filmmaking about as well as any director of his generation. While he’s most highly regarded for his loosely-plotted, dialog-heavy, philosophically-searching smaller films (Slacker, the Before trilogy, Waking Life), he’s just as adept at delivering breezy, crowd-pleasing comedies tailor-made for repeat viewing (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Everybody Wants Some!!). 

His latest, the romantic noir comedy Hit Man (out now in limited release before streaming on Netflix June 7) is a relentlessly charming blend of sharp-toothed black humor, knuckle-biting suspense, and pants-tightening sexual chemistry that also wades into deep ruminations on psychology and the nature of identity. While the prolific Linklater is nowhere near the end of his career (he’s already wrapped his next feature, Nouvelle Vague), Hit Man serves as the perfect culmination of his dual modes. It also rounds out a surprising thematic set within his 21-title filmography. Along with The Newton Boys (1998) and Bernie (2011), Hit Man caps off a trilogy of true crime pictures rooted in Texas history.

The first of those, the early 20th century period piece The Newton Boys, was Linklater’s initial foray into big-budget studio filmmaking. Based on the 1994 book The Newton Boys: Portrait of an Outlaw Gang by Claude Stanish (with whom Linklater co-wrote the screenplay, alongside Clark Lee Walker), it tells the fact-based story the brothers Newton—Willis (Mathew McConaughey), Jess (Ethan Hawke), Joe (Skeet Ulrich), and Dock (Vincent D’Onofrio)—poor Texas farm boys who would go on to become the most successful bank robbers in American history before they were eventually apprehended in 1924. 

Although promoted by 20th Century Fox as a slick, heartthrob-heavy action-western ala Young Guns, The Newton Boys has much more in common with the films Linklater had made previously and would continue to helm about wayward youths not so much rebelling against society so much as tuning it out. There are a handful of shootouts and a good number of explosions, but they are few and far between. One of the reasons the Newtons—all of whom survived into old age and died as free men—were so successful in their crime spree was because they went out of their way to avoid violence, committing their carefully-planned heists at night, when their targets sat empty (save for the night guards, who they always treated gently and politely, sometimes even slipping them some of the purloined cash). The Wild Bunch they were not, nor was Linklater interested in making them seem cooler or more dangerous.

Unfortunately, the film does lack the necessary urgency and tension of a traditional bandits narrative, which would be fine if it leaned more into the shaggy dog vibes of Slacker and Dazed. As it stands, The Newton Boys is too plot-heavy to work as a hangout movie, but not engaging enough to succeed as a crime thriller. It’s a handsome film filled with good performances and a couple fun formalist flourishes—the use of old film stock and silent-era techniques recalls Scorsese, while the ’70s interview footage featuring the last surviving brothers that plays over the end credits suggests this material might have been better served in a documentary–but it’s neither the disaster a lot of people probably assume it to be, nor any kind of slept-on masterpiece. 

Commercially and critically, it was a failure, with a lot of detractors publicly decrying Linklater for selling out, even though that wasn’t the case. Per the Texas native himself: “Newton Boys was a very personal film, a story I felt very attached to, a story I felt only I would be interested in telling and I told it my way.” 

Linklater’s experiences making The Newton Boys were all positive, but the lack of faith shown by Fox for its release did send him back to smaller, more personal and experimental work, his next features being the ambling animated dreamscape Waking Life and the micro-budget DV drama Tape. However, he’d follow those with his biggest commercial success to date, the major hit comedy School of Rock, starring Jack Black.

Black would reteam with Linklater a few years down the line for Bernie, the next installment in the true crime trilogy, about Bernie Tiede, a beloved mortician in the small East Texas town of Carthage who became the unlikely “companion” of Marjorie Nugent, an aged, wealthy, and widely despised widow who he would eventually murder for reasons that still remain mysterious, before stuffing her body in an ice box for nine months (during which time he proceeded to give a large amount of her fortune away, Robin Hood-style, to the community). Even more shocking than the crime itself was the aftermath, with the deeply conservative townspeople of Carthage rallying around the obviously gay Tiede, despite the fact that he confessed to the murder as soon as Nugent’s body was discovered.

Linklater learned of the story right around the time of The Newton Boys’ release, via an article  in Texas Monthly by Skip Hollandsworth. In a later cover story about the making of Bernie, Hollandsworth described being called out of the blue by Linklater shortly after his original report was published and abruptly asked to help turn it into a screenplay. Despite having no experience writing for film, Linklater convinced him to take the job and they soon had a script ready to go. But as with the majority of screenplays commissioned by producers, Bernie sat on the shelf for almost ten years until, once more out of the blue, Linnklater phoned Hollandsworth to tell him the picture was a go and to get ready to meet him on set. Black took the title role, utterly transforming himself into the soft-spoken, kindly killer, while Newton Boys star (and Linklater’s second-greatest leading man, after Ethan Hawke) McConaughey played prosecuting district attorney Danny Buck. Screen legend Shirley MacLaine rounded out the main trio as the domineering Widow Nugent.

Despite lots of initial trepidation from the townspeople in Carthage, Linklater was able to bring several of them on board as actors, deciding to take an almost docudrama-type approach to the material by having these non-actors—many of whom personally knew the major players–serve as a gossipy Greek chorus in fourth wall-breaking interludes. Linklater told Hollandsworth that he was attracted to the story because the personalities and details he captured reminded him of his own small-town upbringing. 

That sense of authenticity is key to the success of Bernie, but so is Linklater’s innate chillness. With a couple of exceptions (SubUrbia, Fast Food Nation), it’s hard to think of a filmmaker less interested in moral proclamation, and even at their most unhinged, absurd, or ethically dubious, the viewer never gets the sense that he’s passing judgment on his characters. That’s easy enough when it comes to the Newton gang, seeing as they never killed anyone and, as they were so fond of saying, the banks they were ripping off were the real crooks. But refraining from judgment in so intimate and pointless a crime as Tied’s requires a far more mature outlook.

It’s an outlook that Linklater seems to carry in his day-to-day life. A couple of years after Bernie was released (to golden reviews and a small profit), the real Tiede was granted a resentencing trial based on newly discovered evidence brought forth by his new attorney, who learned about his case from the movie. Surprisingly, the original prosecutor, Danny Buck, publicly stated that Tiede deserved a reduced sentence, which led to some speculating that he’d been unduly persuaded by the celebrities involved in the picture. 

Although Tiede would eventually have his conviction upheld (he’ll be eligible for parole in 2029), he did enjoy a month-long release, during which time Linklater put him up at his own garage apartment. Linklater fully committed himself to the cause of freeing Tiede, holding a fundraising event for his legal defense alongside Black. He testified on Tiede’s behalf, going so far as to say he had no hesitation letting Tiede babysit his children.

In 2001, around the same time that Linklater and Hollandsworth would have been working on the script for Bernie, Hollandworth published another classic of true crime reportage in Texas Monthly. “Hit Man” was a profile of Gary Johnson, a staff investigator for the Harris County district attorney’s office and part-time community college professor who served as an undercover operative for various police departments in and around Huston by posing as a contract killer for a shockingly diverse clientele. 

The subject of Hollandsworth’s article is as much the mentality of Johnson and the desperate characters he trapped as it is the details of his sting operations. While the latter is ripe for cinematic treatment—at one point, Brad Pitt intended to star in a version adapted by William Goldman–it’s those deeper explorations that drew Linklater to the project, as well as his familiarity with Hollandsworth.

(In a funny twist, star and co-screenwriter Glen Powell, a fellow Austinite who began really turning heads in Everybody Wants Some!!, approached Linklater about the project first, telling him he had to read this article, to which Linklater replied “Glen, I read that when you were in the sixth grade or whatever.”)

Hit Man feels very much of a piece with The Newton Boys and Bernie in its non-judgemental, at times laid-back look at crime and punishment, but it distinguishes itself in two important ways. 

One: although the real Johnson operated in Texas, Linklater moved the action to New Orleans. He’d wanted to film on location in Houston, with “all of Houston’s eccentricity”, but Texas’s antagonistic relationship with the film industry (they’d recently gotten rid of any tax incentives for in-state productions) forced his hand. This doesn’t mean much when watching the movie, but it makes for a frustrating break in continuity when placing this alongside the other two films.

And two: unlike The Newton Boys and Bernie, which are both billed as ‘Based on a true story’ and don’t seem to stray from the facts of their respective cases, Hit Man is presented as a “somewhat true story.”  Linklater could have very easily kept his film grounded and turned in a perfectly fascinating character study of the eccentric, empathetic loner with an enticingly dark edge as described in the pages of Hollandsworth’s profile. But in a surprising move, he decided to steer the story into more traditional, if sadly bygone, cinematic territory. The end result is a perfect blend of the romantic comedy and the film noir, and suffice to say, the twists and turns it takes have almost no basis in reality.

That said, Hit Man, like Bernie, remains a remarkable example of adaptation. Reading Hollandsworth’s articles after seeing the films, it’s almost staggering how adept Linklater and his co-writers are at weaving the real details—events, relationships, bits of dialog—into these necessarily heightened narratives. Several moments in Hit Man that I was convinced were fiction ended up coming straight from the real-life source.

Linklater’s ability to both stick to the facts and veer wildly from them when it suits him, while always managing to remain true to the spirit of these real life tales of criminality, is a singular talent. When it comes to true crime cinema, Linklater might be the realest one out there.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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