Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton head the exceptionally strong cast of this 2012 miniseries.
Editor's Note: Throughout March and April, we’re celebrating Great Westerns of the 21st Century — noteworthy movies and TV series with special appeal to C&I readers that have premiered since 2001. Check the Entertainment tab Monday through Friday to see a different recommendation by C&I senior writer Joe Leydon. And be on the lookout for our upcoming May/June 2020 print edition, which prominently features the legendary star who looms large in two of this century’s very best westerns.
Winner of five Emmy Awards, including a Best Actor prize for Kevin Costner and a Best Supporting Actor honor for Tom Berenger, Hatfields & McCoys currently is available for streaming rental or purchase on Starz, Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes and VUDU.com.
Is it suitable for binge-viewing? Well, Hatfields & McCoys is by no means brisk — it originally aired, with commercials, as a six-hour miniseries. But director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) and scriptwriters Ted Mann and Ronald Parker sustain enough narrative momentum throughout their sprawling yet satisfying saga to allow for the development of a half-dozen or so fascinating central characters, and the adroit sketching of several other intriguing peripheral figures, without ever getting bogged down in any single subplot or side issue.
By deftly entwining elements of Greek tragedy and classic western, they offer what arguably is the definitive retelling of a true-life American folk tale. In lesser hands, this could have come off as a simple story about a family feud — basically, hillbillies shooting other hillbillies. But Reynolds, his scriptwriters and the exceptional ensemble cast elevate the familiar narrative to the level of involving drama.
First and second among equals in that exceptional ensemble: Kevin Costner as Devil Anse Hatfield, leader of the Hatfield family of West Virginia, and Bill Paxton as Randall McCoy, paterfamilias of the McCoy clan of Kentucky. Each actor in a different way infuses his character with a complex, sometimes contradictory mix of grit and gravitas, authority and obstinacy, illuminating all that is admirable and repellent about these deeply flawed and dangerously proud men.
The miniseries begins on a Civil War battlefield, with Randall and Devil Anse serving bravely as brothers in arms for the Confederate Army. Early on, however, the two men go their separate ways: Devil Anse opts to abandon the lost cause and return home to fend for his family; Randall continues to fight, and ends up in a prisoner of war camp. When Randall returns home after the war’s end, he finds his wife (Mare Winningham) barely scraping by on their family farm – and Devil Anse operating a thriving timber business.
Slowly, inexorably, resentments and recriminations escalate. Randall’s brother, who served in the Union Army, arouses the ire of Devil Anse’s Uncle Jim (a scene-stealing, almost unrecognizable Tom Berenger), who impulsively kills the “traitor.” Two legal squabbles – one involving timber rights, the other focusing on (no joke) a pig – are decided in favor of the McCoys. A witness in the latter case rashly boasts of killing any McCoy who confronts him; when he himself is killed by two McCoy brothers, the local justice of the peace (Powers Boothe) – Devil Anse’s older brother -- has no choice but to accept a claim of self-defense.
One thing leads to another, one killing is answered with more killings. Eventually, the backwoods feud metastasizes to the point where bounty hunters are encouraged to take aim at Hatfields, armed groups are launching sorties across state lines, and governors are exchanging heated words during disputes over jurisdictions.
In the midst of all the mayhem, Hatfields & McCoys teases viewers with the possibility of peace through a reconciliatory romance between Johnse Hatfield (Matt Barr), Devil Anse’s oldest son, and Roseanna McCoy (Lindsay Pulsipher), Randall’s beautiful daughter. Unfortunately, this relationship leads to a resolution that, in keeping with the overall tone of the miniseries, is triggered by the weaknesses of some and the machinations of others.
The dialogue neatly balances the colloquial and the flamboyant, so that almost all the characters -- even the most rustic ones – occasionally engage in memorable rhetorical flourishes. (Boothe’s justice of the peace rages: “By God, I will gut-shoot the next agitator that disrespects my courtroom!”) And the production values for this miniseries — which, believe it or not, was filmed on location in Romania — are impressively polished, even as the story forces viewers into the muck and mire of a fact-based drama about two families who, as one character notes, are famous for killing each other.
“That’s the legacy they leave,” Paxton said in a 2012 A.V. Club interview. “But I think it’s one of those timeless stories. It’s biblical in its nature, and it has a real moral, because once you get into reprisals and you seek revenge… There’s an expression: When you seek revenge, dig two graves. I don’t know where I pulled that out of. [Laughs.] But I heard that somewhere, and that kind of sums it up in a nutshell.”
Paxton viewed Randall McCoy “as a victim of the war, coming home with post-traumatic stress syndrome, much like some of these guys coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s a guy who becomes obsessed with his hatred, that this other guy has profited from the war, and he just can’t reconcile it. It’s a betrayal, in a way. A strange love story.”
Here is a video of the haunting theme from Hatfields & McCoys as performed by Kevin Costner and his band Modern West, featuring vocals by Sara Beck.