The Hatfields and McCoys were two hillbilly clans
on the West Virginia-Kentucky border who spent a couple of generations
killing each other over real and perceived infractions. The after-effects of this
private war have echoed down the ages, having finally
subsumed the entire political culture of the United States. (I'm partly
kidding about that last bit, although perhaps it doesn't take such a
leap to see the parallels -- more on those later.) Kevin Reynolds'
well-made miniseries hews close to the factual outlines of the feud,
crafting an entertaining, expansive three-episode, five-hour rendition
of an oft-referenced historical event whose specifics are largely forgotten.
William Anderson "Anse" Hatfield (Kevin Costner)
and Randolph McCoy (Bill Paxton) fought alongside one another during
the Civil War. Following a near-suicidal act of gallantry, Hatfield
goes AWOL and returns home, an act that reflects poorly in McCoy's
view. Back home along Kentucky's Tug Fork, Hatfield's uncle, Jim
Vance (Tom Berenger) kills a McCoy relation who has earned region's
ire - and Vance's in particular -- for wearing Union blue. After
McCoy returns from the war, a property dispute between the two families
heightens tensions, although this is nothing compared to the blooming
romance between Hatfield's son Johnse (Matt Barr) and McCoy's daughter
Roseanna (Lindsay Pulsipher). Predictably, this brings things to a near-Biblical
Reynolds and his writers, Ted Mann and Ronald Parker,
don't shy away from the fact that these were pretty unpleasant people
whose wide malevolent streaks led to Viking-level savagery for nearly thirty years. Both
lead actors are outstanding, delivering performances that are based
neither in their stardom nor in the more sensationalistic aspects of
their characters. Paxton's earnest, God-fearing McCoy is both bull-headed
and sympathetic, and, as the quietly enraged Hatfield, Costner keeps
his native charm in check to achieve a level of intensity unusual in
the actor. I would say that, on the whole, the miniseries takes the
Hatfields' side, at least implicitly. Hatfield characters have more
screen time than the McCoys, and therefore most audiences will be prejudiced
in favor of them. But this is a subtle effect, and is not necessarily
the outgrowth of any particular judgment made by of the filmmakers.
For their first scripted drama, History (that's
the cable channel, not the discipline) has provided a budget worthy
of an epic melodrama, and the production reflects that. The photography
and editing are polished. Reynolds shot the series in a sort of washed-out
sepia tone. Added to that is meticulous design work and costumes, although
there are a few hints of "2010s does 1880s" here and there, particularly
when it comes to the younger actors' hair and makeup. The overall
visual effect, however, is that of rifling through faded black-and-white
photographs dug up in someone's attic trunk.
Whether intended by the filmmakers or not, I picked
up on a subtext tied to contemporary American political discourse. Like
the Hatfields and McCoys, who spent years battling to no end whatsoever
at the cost of a dozen or so members of their families, Americans at
large currently seem intent upon continuing an inane political debate
taking place at various levels, the intended result of which has never
been clearly delineated by either side. However, as with the Hatfield
and McCoy dead, the price may be turn out to be those very precious
things we seek so ardently to protect and preserve.
Image and Sound
Sony has released a crisp-looking Blu-ray. The 1.78:1 image is encoded
at 1080p. Arthur Reinhart's photography is clean and bright, despite
the grim world inhabited by the series' characters. This is a brand-new
series, and the disc was struck from an original HD master, and the
spotless image reflects that. The 5.1 DTS Master Audio soundtrack is
immersive and dynamic, starting off with the opening Civil War sequence,
in which rifles and pistols pop authentically across the soundstage.
Gunshots are both sonically and dramatically significant in Hatfields & McCoys, and they have clearly been given special
attention on the soundtrack. Most of the time, dialogue takes precedence
on the soundtrack, although ambient effects are ever-present.
The half-hour "The Making of Hatfields & McCoys" is a
sufficient, if not spectacularly deep, extended EPK that includes sound
bites from all the principal participants. There's also a disposable
music video for a song called "I Know These Hills," performed by
none other than Kevin Costner and his band Modern West. (They released
an album of music inspired by the miniseries, called Famous for Killing Each Other, a line from the last of the
Tightly scripted and deftly executed, Hatfields & McCoys may become the definitive rendition
of what has long been a familiar yet murky American story. Anchored
by thoughtful characterizations and nuanced performances, this gripping
miniseries succeeds on all fronts. Recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.