The History Channel, a network better known for antique based reality shows and Hitler documentaries, will mark its first foray into the world of the mini-series with “Hatfields & McCoys” beginning Monday, May 29th and while I poke fun at the network’s place in pop culture History’s first scripted mini-series is actually a rousing success.
Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton star in “Hatfields & McCoys” as the patriarchs of their respective clans. At the start we find that ‘Devil’ Anse Hatfield (Costner) and Randall McCoy (Paxton) were once friends. Having fought together on the front line for the South in the civil war each demonstrated remarkable bravery on the battlefield.
That battlefield however, would also show the first cracks in the friendship of Hatfield and McCoy. After surviving an ugly Northern assault Anse Hatfield decides that he’s had enough of the war and chooses to desert. It’s McCoy who catches Anse as he’s making off with a horse and makes the fateful decision not to arrest Hatfield for desertion; despite his extreme disgust with what he views as cowardice.
As Anse is making his way back to the relative civilization of West Virginia a situation is brewing between his kin and that of Randall McCoy. Tom Berenger plays Jim Vance, Anse Hatfield’s uncle, a volatile character seemingly born for finding violence and murder. It is Jim Vance who fires the first shot in the war that will consume the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s when he murders Randall’s drunkard brother.
That was the first in a long line of murders that would culminate with an all out war that consumed not just members of both families but portions of both West Virginia and Kentucky, the state border played a key role in the deadly skirmishes and the politics of Hatfield vs. McCoy reached the Governors of both states and nearly involved troops from both sides.
There is also time for a love story in “Hatfields & McCoys” and while it conjures notions of a clichéd, “Romeo & Juliet” rehash the filmmakers do well to avoid what is expected and still invest the romance with substance. Young actors Matt Barr and Lindsey Pulsipher play the star-crossed lovers Johnse Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy and their fates are more compelling than you expect, well beyond any questions of ‘happily ever after.’
The series comes from director Kevin Reynolds who until now is best remembered for being fired, by Kevin Costner, from the disastrous “Waterworld.” No hard feelings apparently as Reynolds and Costner work exceptionally well here with Reynolds drawing out Costner’s finest performance in years.
Costner is the rare handsome leading man who’s longed to be old and grizzled. Finally having reached an age when it’s okay to be grizzled Costner’s lack of vanity really pays off in “Hatfields and McCoys.” Costner lacks all of the airs of the leading man and is instead a steadying presence not unlike James Stewart or Gary Cooper, actors who were never feared getting old on screen and instead used age to their advantage.
Costner’s work here is fearless and compelling, easily the equal of his finest work in “Dances with Wolves” and “Field of Dreams;” only with the handsome smile replaced by hateful stare of equal effectiveness. If Costner does not receive an Emmy or Critics Choice Television Award for his work in “Hatfields & McCoys” it will be a true shame.
Bill Paxton is not nearly as interesting as Costner but that could be a function of his character. Randall McCoy is portrayed as a stoic, pious, simmering cauldron whose personality is expressed in permanent indignation. Randall’s pious façade fades as the series gets into its final hours but even then his main expression is apoplectic, drunken outrage.
Tom Berenger is the other likely Emmy to come out of “Hatfields and McCoys.” Berenger’s sociopathic Jim Vance is a flesh and bone creation like few you’ve seen before. Berenger invests Vance with fearful qualities abated by an undeniable, slithery charm. When Vance finally gets what’s coming to him the scene has an unexpected power to it.
Director Reynolds along with the team of writers behind “Hatfields & McCoys” does an exceptional job of portraying both sides fairly. That the Hatfields come off more compelling than the McCoys is a function of Costner and Berenger simply being more interesting to watch than Paxton and his lesser known supporting players.
“Hatfields & McCoys” is smart, exciting, epic and expansive. Kevin Reynolds and the History Channel have created a mini-series of great emotional strength, historic acumen and entertainment value. The series begins Monday, May 28th and continues through Wednesday, May 30th on The History Channel.