In Hatfields & McCoys we are given an authentic, gritty look at the thirty-year feud between the two legendary families. While Kevin Costner is the stand-out, the rest of the cast’s performances grow on you and, by the middle of the first episode, have you fully immersed into the 1880’s West Virginia/Kentucky border. Since it was written for TV, the usual cliff-hangers tend to give the show an ebb and flow feel—almost like hiking to the top of a mountain but turning back because you ran out of time. Yet, the series’ shortcomings do not detract from the fantastic story, beautiful landscapes, the character development or, in short, the look and feel of Virginia/Kentucky at the end of the 19th Century.
The obvious starting point when looking over H&Ms is the two leads: Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton. Unfortunately, Costner can, and does, act circles around Paxton; that’s just the facts of life, folks. Costner, as “Devil” Anse Hatfield, has been revered for Dances with Wolves (1990) and Open Range (2003), just to name a few. While Paxton, on the other hand, tends to be more of a supporting actor and is best used as part of a grouping of actors—Tombstone (1993) comes to mind.
Chalk it up to experience? Nah, Costner is Anse Hatfield and feels like he has always been the “Devil.” Paxton feels like the last minute replacement for, oh I don’t know, Ian McShane (sweet Jesus that would have been awesome). When Costner owns the darker side of his characters (a la Open Range) without wallowing in the romanticism of the Old West, he’s truly an intimidating force. There are times during H&Ms where Anse is more like Joe Pesci from Goodfellas, whacking anyone in his way. Clad with a pitch-black beard, squinted eyes, and hat pulled low, Costner makes the thirty-year feud believable on screen because that som’bitch ain’t making peace with a pinecone let alone the McCoys.
Returning to the feel of H&Ms, The History Channel deserves much credit for creating a moody landscape on top of the bright, beautiful hills and plains of Kentucky. Perhaps it’s the blood-soaked dialogue that is almost inaudible at times due to accents and rhythm of speech—both great things to have in a Western—or it could just be the realistic violence of the show. I’m not saying that History is the new HBO, but there is enough blood flow and headshots to keep mainstream audiences happy. Considering that most deaths occur in full view of the bluish-white Kentucky hills, death has a cold, steely unease, reminding us that the Old West wasn’t all about swooning maids and corn liquor fuelled square dances.
One of the best features of H&Ms is its re-envisioning of stock characters from the heyday of the Western, say, from 1930-1950. Although Tom Berenger has third billing, good luck finding him in the opening episode. As Uncle Jim Vance, he’s almost unrecognizable and even meaner than “Devil” Anse; he looks to be a cross between L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin from The Wild Bunch (1969). On the topic of lookalikes, Skunkhair Tom Wallace (Andy Gathergood) channels all that is Harry Dean Stanton and had me checking the cast summary to make sure that it wasn’t. Then, of course, comes Powers Booth and that name alone adds legitimacy to any Western tale. All three are Hatfields, by the way, stacking the talent too much in the favour of the Hatfields and exposing the one-dimensional McCoy characters.
What really cuts through the story, and makes me wonder if it’s an overt criticism, is the show’s treatment of Christianity. As the episodes pass, the dialogue becomes obsessed with “Bible Bloodlust”—for lack of a better word. The mentioning of Christ or God starts off normal enough and is comparable to any story set during the 19th Century. Yet, by the end of the first episode, you’d swear it was The Crusades all over again.
Once the feud is in full swing (growing repetitive at times, however) it’s ‘Jesus this’ and ‘the Lord that’ which drives the All Mighty firepower of vengeance. The reason I mentioned potential criticism is because there is a culmination of “Bible Bloodlust” in the outright questioning of Christianity, and faith in general, by the most religious of them all: Randall McCoy (Paxton). In an emotional, crucial scene before the final battle, McCoy despairingly cries that no “just God” would allow such atrocities to happen to his immediate family members. If it’s not an overt criticism of Christianity, H&Ms is certainly a great vehicle to create an audience of non-believers.
Overall, I take it to be a pretty good sign of a well-made Mini-Series when I sit through all six hours of it and want more. Yet, unfortunately, that’s the main problem with H&Ms: you’re left wanting some thing more. The show ends quite abruptly and cuts to life bio’s of both the Hatfields and the McCoys. It’s so rushed that even the bio’s are incredibly hard to read, flashing on and off the screen like a fly landing on a window. After almost reviving the Civil War, the show presses on too far into history trying to resolve loose ends, leaping from the 1890’s to 1914, and loses much of its steam by doing so. However, that’s nitpicking. The show is a huge step forward for the History Channel and scripted Mini-Series not on HBO, Showtime, or AMC; but, most importantly, it’s riveting TV.