At Four and a half-plus hours, the three-night, Kevin Costner-starring Hatfields & McCoys — a re-creation of a 19th-century rural feud that’s probably one generation beyond common knowledge — could have been a tedious bore. And did I mention that it was directed by the guy who took the fall for Waterworld ? But, working once again with Costner, director Kevin Reynolds — who, to be fair, did a bang-up job with Costner on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves — summons a vivid tableau of backwoods life. Costner, as Devil Anse Hatfield (yes, his real first name, Devil, rarely pops up on those lists of popular baby-boy names), and Bill Paxton, as Randall McCoy, head up the clans that clash, and both men give distinctively soulful performances.
Here’s a summary of the epic squabble, for those who don’t know it: Just after the Civil War, friends and side-by-side Confederate soldiers Hatfield and McCoy return to their homes and drift apart. Arguments and misunderstandings grow like weeds between their respective plots of land in West Virginia and Kentucky. Everything from timber rights to the supposed theft of a pig ultimately results in bloody fistfights and deadly gun battles. Costner deserves credit, here and in his 2003 film Open Range, for doing variations on the Western genre capable of surprising audiences with their freshness and depth. He manages to keep Hatfield’s corncob-pipe-smoking stoic from being a hillbilly cliché. Similarly, Paxton’s McCoy, a devout man with a healthy streak of fear, is a complex figure in this saga. You can understand why these men initially admired and eventually hated each other. As Hatfield says at one point, ”If ever two men misunderstood each other, it was us.”
Hatfields & McCoys occasionally gets bogged down in the miniseries’ chief subplot, a drawling Romeo-and-Juliet romance between Johnse Hatfield (Matt Barr) and Roseanna McCoy (Lindsay Pulsipher). But Jena Malone is around to spice things up as a devious McCoy cousin who tempts Johnse, and Tom Berenger, nearly unrecognizable beneath whiskers and buckskin, is fine as Devil Anse’s uncle and ruthless ally. Hatfields & McCoys is nearly hijacked by an interloper: Andrew Howard, in a delightfully showy performance as Bad Frank Phillips, an ex–Pinkerton agent who exploits the feud by becoming a sadistic killer for hire, collecting bounty rewards as the Hatfields and the McCoys commit crimes in the course of their fighting.
In stretching the tale over three nights, the pacing sags at times, and recriminations can get repetitive. It also doesn’t help that Reynolds shot the miniseries in that perpetual sepia tone that gives everything a faux-antique look. But overall, Hatfields & McCoys is engrossing, and enlightening about a feud that proves to be a lot more than the bumpkin brawl of pop legend. B+