Hatfields & McCoys

Hatfields & McCoys debuts tonight on History at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Even casual students of history know the names Hatfield and McCoy, and immediately associate those families with the very concept of feuding, even if many of us have no idea exactly why they got along so poorly. As it turns out, it’s a long story. A very, very long story, in the hands of writers Ted Mann, Bill Kerby, and Ronald Parker, and director Kevin Reynolds, the creative team behind the History Channel’s new miniseries Hatfields & McCoys.

It begins with family patriarchs Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton) and “Devil” Anse Hatfield (Kevin Costner) fighting on the same side, against the Union forces in the Civil War. The first sign of trouble between them comes when Anse decides he’s had enough of fighting for a lost cause and returns home to his family, an act Randall regards as desertion. While Anse is back in West Virginia building up his timber trade, Randall is captured and spends the rest of the war in a Union prison camp.

Tensions escalate when Anse’s Uncle Jim (Tom Berenger, unrecognizable under a bushy beard perpetually dripping with tobacco juice) guns down a McCoy who served with the Union forces. Once Randall is released and returns home, relations deteriorate further. Randall’s wife Sally (Mare Winningham) gives him a chilly reception, announcing, “I’m prepared to do my duty as your wife, but I ask that you spill your seed outside of me.” One of Randall’s distinctively-marked pigs goes missing, and later turns up in the possession of a Hatfield relative. Randall’s cousin, the lawyer Perry Cline (a suitably oily Ronan Vibert) makes a lame attempt at swindling the timber rights from Anse’s extensive land holdings.

Even as the feud intensifies, it remains rather one-sided, with the prosperous Hatfields getting the better of the scrapping McCoys at nearly every turn. When the case of the stolen pig ends up in court, the presiding judge is Valentine Hatfield (Powers Boothe). And even though the jury is evenly split between Hatfields and McCoys, one of the latter defects, depriving Randall of even this small victory. When a hillbilly Romeo-and-Juliet romance plays out between Anse’s son Johnse (Matt Barr) and Randall’s daughter Roseanna (Lindsay Pulsipher), neither patriarch will approve the union. (Since there doesn’t seem to be anyone not named Hatfield and McCoy in the entire Tug Valley, the dating pool is somewhat diluted. Who are the Hatfields supposed to marry, if not McCoys?)

The blood begins to be spilled in earnest by the end of the first episode, and once it starts flowing, it doesn’t stop. Hatfields gun down McCoys, McCoys gun down Hatfields, and it all starts blurring together as one long, senseless series of monotonous, violent acts. That’s part of the point, of course—resentments fester, violence begets violence, and the bonds of family, no matter how tenuous, serve as the only motivation necessary to perpetuate the cycle. But the sheer volume of bullets and blood grows wearisome as the hours stretch on and the members of the warring clans blend into anonymity. If you took all the killings from every episode of The Sopranos and condensed them into a three-night miniseries, it wouldn’t have anymore depth than is displayed here, but at least there would be some variety in terms of method and visual presentation. Here it’s just one halfwit shitkicker after another going down to the dust in a hail of gunfire, and by the end of it, who could possible care if these two worthless families wipe each other out?

Stronger personalities at the center of the story might help, but Costner and Paxton have both made long careers out of similar shades of dullness. They don’t balance each other here, even as Randall sees himself as Devil Anse’s righteous, God-fearing opposite. The cast is sprawling, but only Berenger (who must be kicking himself for missing out on Deadwood), Vibert, and a spitfire Jena Malone show much spark.

Director Reynolds has worked with Costner before, famously clashing with the star on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld, yet returning for more. A movie about their feud might be interesting, but here Reynolds in unable to shape his repetitive material into a compelling narrative. He conjures up the occasional lyrical, rustic visual, such as the sunlight streaming through the trees surrounding a cabin, then overdoes it in the very next shot, with the light pouring through the cabin windows as if a UFO were landing outside. The script offers up a few memorable attempts at Milchian dialogue—at one point, Costner calls Paxton a “huckleberry bubba parsimmon”—but it’s ham-fisted when it comes to spelling out the miniseries’ broad-brush themes. In the end, Hatfields & McCoys answers all the questions about what caused this historic feud with a resounding, “Who cares?”


Stray observations:

  • I didn’t use a stopwatch, but I’m prepared to make the claim that Hatfields & McCoys features more spitting per hour than any television production to date. So much spitting.
  • Judge Hatfield: “Is the pig in court today?” Floyd Hatfield: “No. It’s done been et.”
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