Anse Hatfield (Kevin Costner) and Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton) become friends while fighting for the Confederacy, but the post-war years tear them apart, a series of small misunderstandings and slights eventually blossoming into a years-long feud filled with violence, murder, and revenge.
Hatfields & McCoys, which premiered to huge numbers on the History Channel earlier this year, is accurate in its look and feel (the production values are top-notch in their authenticity, and Romania makes a surprisingly excellent stand-in for the hills and woods of Kentucky and Virginia), but itís more concerned with telling an engaging story than it is sticking to the facts, spicing up its historical tale with healthy doses of romance, violence, and big emotions. And thereís nothing wrong with that; there are plenty of factual tellings out there, so anyone who wants the real story can simply turn to one of them. Besides, this story has become the stuff of legend, so turning it into something of an epic melodrama befits it.
That itís pretty damned entertaining certainly doesnít hurt. For me this is the best thing Kevin Reynolds has ever directed, but Iím not sure what thatís worth, as Iím not particularly enamored with any of his previous works, and Iím also the sort of nut who thinks Waterworld is an okay flick and finds Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to be worthless.
Reynolds isnít a great visualist (or even a very good one), but he does have fairly solid storytelling chops; heís not the sort of director who can overcome deficiencies in a script, which is why his output tends to range from middling to poor, but he understands pacing and clarity. His limited visual acumen makes him perfect for television, so heís more than at home here. And heís been given a teleplay that asks him to do nothing more than take it easy and tell a story that recalls the sort of western Hollywood would cranking out on a regular basis five or six decades ago.
And thatís largely the appeal here. At the risk of repeating myself yet again, Hatfields & McCoys plays like an old-school western thatís been crossed with one of those multi-part epics that used to eat up several nights of television back in the Ď70s and Ď80s. It makes use of many of the tropes of a classical western, but the soapier aspects (a term which in this case isnít really an insult) seem drawn from later influences.
A shot of a family matron walking out of a burning homestead and threatening her assailants with muskets wouldnít have been out of place in a John Ford movie, but all of the double-dealing, betrayal, and family strife is straight out of a John Jakes book. Itís not a completely successful mix, but Hatfields & McCoys works on the same level as the types of offerings that influenced it, entertaining in the simplest, most fundamental way possible.
Length is the primary problem here. The setup is fine, and the concluding chapter barrels along with speed and purpose, charging along toward an ending that is as melancholy as it is inevitable. The middle installment, though, has been padded, bloated by material that served only to stretch the miniseries out to a three-night event.
Hatfields & McCoys filled six hours of programming for the History Channel, and without commercials it runs close to five hours. Judicious editing could have cut that down by thirty or forty minutes, and a ruthless job could have slashed it to four hours. A large chunk of the second episode is given over to the relationships between Johnse Hatfield (Matt Barr) and McCoy cousins Roseanna (Lindsay Pulsipher) and Nancy (Jenna Malone). These relationships are vital to the story, but theyíre allowed to hog far too much time.
Reynolds and the producers (Costner is numbered among them) assembled a uniformly fine cast. Both leads are excellent; this is Costnerís best work in some time, and I canít help but think the chance to play against type put a charge in him. Seeing as this is something of a beard-fest, law requires Powers Boothe be offered a role, and he doesnít disappoint, once again doing what he was born to do (no further explanation is required). Tom Berenger chews more than his fair share of scenery as Jim Vance, Anseís seriously disturbed uncle. Sarah Parish and Mare Winningham provide solid support as the Hatfield and McCoy matriarchs, respectively. (The pairing of Winnigham and Pulsipher is a bit inspired; they truly look like mother and daughter.)
The buffalo hunt from Dances With Wolves remains the best sequence Reynolds has ever put together, but a chaotic battle in the final episode here is close behind. The families and their allies face off in wooded areas and an open field, and the bravado thatís bandied about before the shooting starts quickly gives way to terror, cowardice, and confusion. It doesnít feel staged; it has a messy, in-the-moment quality that serves it well. Itís the flipside of the sequence from Wolves, deglamorized in the extreme, nothing thrilling about it.
This is also true of the miniseries as a whole, as it takes what is a rather silly piece of American lore and makes it clear just how stupid, pointless, and futile it was (and doing so in a way that wisely makes just about everyone involved look idiotic for not realizing how stupid, pointless, and futile their actions are).
Sure, Hatfields & McCoys is overripe at times, its humor is often silly and juvenile, and by and large itís concerned with nothing more than giving you a way to get away from it all for a few hours (Iím starting to feel like Iím contradicting myself a bit), but Reynolds and his collaborators wisely realize that when itís all said and done, thereís nothing to be celebrated here.
The story of the Hatfields and McCoys is really quite sad, the sort of thing that makes you question whether humans actually are the most advanced species on the planet. This is by no means an overly somber, elegiac affair, but it also doesnít treat its subject matter as the joke itís become over the years. Youíll be entertained, yes, but youíll also get a thing or two to think about.
Note: This is a slightly longer version of the mini-series than what was originally broadcast. Thereís something like four or so extra minutes here, and I imagine this consists of brief bits of violence and language that wouldnít have flown on basic cable.
The miniseries is presented in its original 1.78:1; the 1080p transfer has been encoded with AVC, and the three episodes are housed on two 50GB discs. Reynolds and cinematographer Arthur Reinhart (who previously shot Tristan + Isolde for the director) bring a desaturated, cold look to the miniseries, one that befits the time, place, and plot.
Digital cameras were used, but the image doesnít look digital; the texture isnít completely film-like, but itís far closer than what you usually get with television fare. The earthy palette is rendered flawlessly, blacks donít falter, and the image is sharp and detailed; the post-production tinkering used to create the stylized look did nothing to weaken the quality of the image. Some very minor banding and aliasing aside, this is a first-rate transfer.
The only audio option is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Itís a hell of a track; itís not as convincing, immersive, or seamless as what youíd expect from a feature film, but itís awfully close. Relatively thick atmosphere is sustained throughout, creating an impressive sense of place. Gunshots are punchy and weighty, bolstered by a low end that provides a surprisingly deep kick. Gunfights and battles (the first episode opens with a battle sequence, which sets the stage nicely for the audio) sound absolutely fantastic, swirling the action all around you. Dialogue is clear and natural-sounding. Tony Morales and John Debneyís music sounds excellent.
English and English SDH subtitles are available.
The Making of Hatfields & McCoys (30 minutes, HD) is a by-the-numbers behind-the-scenes piece, briefly touching on all of the key phases of production.
The only other extra is a music video (presented in high-def) for Kevin Costner & Modern Westís ďI Know These Hills,Ē the song that plays over the closing credits of each installment.
Hatfields & McCoys isnít great, doesnít reinvent the wheel, etc. But itís entertaining in an unabashedly, unashamedly old-fashioned way (for the most part, anyway). They donít make Ďem exactly like they used to, but sometimes they come close.