The three-part History Channel miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton as heads of feuding southern clans, is so grim and despairing that I had to take a one-day break before the final act and regain my equilibrium. That's a compliment, believe it or not, but I wouldn't necessarily call it a recommendation. This six-hour epic about the most famous feud in U.S. history sticks surprisingly close to the historical record; it's intelligent and mournful, and it never exploits the material for a cheap, violent thrill only to turn around and pretend that it's decrying this sort of behavior. That turns out to be a problem, for reasons that I'll delve into in a moment.
The Hatfield-McCoy feud pitted West Virginia and Kentucky clans against each other from 1963-91, perversely reenacting Civil War tensions on a much smaller scale. Kevin Costner plays Devil Anse Hatfield, patriarch of a West Virginia Clan. Bill Paxton is his counterpart Randall McCoy, head of a Kentucky family. The miniseries' biggest embellishment is putting these two father figures on the same battlefield during the Civil War, who part ways over a perceived act of desertion. I guess this is supposed to connect them more strongly and make their enmity more piercing, but I'm not convinced it was necessary. The program establishes that the Hatfields are Confederate sympathizers and that the McCoys fought for the Union; that the Hatfield are more prosperous than the McCoys; and that young Asa Harmon McCoy was murdered by Hatfields for the crime of sympathizing with the Union and wearing the blue in a bar: that's all you need to understand why the two papas would hate each other's guts.
The Asa McCoy killing touches off round after round of reprisals, stretching out over decades. For the most part, the miniseries' tone is one of incredulity and lament. For every one of the participants, this feud became, in effect, their lives' work, eclipsing their war experience, their domestic lives, and any legitimate business they transacted over the decades. As in Jeff Nichols's excellent 2007 feud drama Shotgun Stories – a great American indie, highly recommended – Hatfields & McCoys turns the macho code inside-out to show its grotesque interior. Some of the most seemingly ridiculous twists are drawn from reality: the rakish young Johnse Hatfield's dalliance with two McCoy women, Roseanna McCoy (Lindsay Pulsipher) and her cousin Nancy (Jena Malone), might feel like a touch of Romeo and Juliet if Johnse weren't such a handsome sociopath and lying little weasel. (At one point he shows up on Roseanna's doorstep after taking part in a firing squad that murdered one of her brothers, and argues that he didn't actually participate in the killing because he intentionally shot at the air over the victim's head.) Devil Anse McCoy initially presents as the program's closest equivalent to a Western movie strong-silent type, but only because he's played by Costner. This turns out to be the program's cleverest bit of casting, because the character is both charismatic and deeply self-serving; the qualities that Devil Anse's followers read as "resolute" and "righteous" are actually vicious, compulsive, and calculating. He's a man who'd seriously consider murdering his own son rather than worry about his conflicted loyalties.
Smart, serious people created Hatfields & McCoys. Ted Mann, who worked on Deadwood, wrote the script, and a few of the locutions have
Deadwood-ish feel. ("I prayed to a merciful God who showed us no mercy," says Randall McCoy near the end of the story – a line that plays ironically when you think about how many men he killed or ordered killed.) The director is Kevin Reynolds; he directed Costner in several movies, starting with Fandango, and there's an easygoing, intuitive, economical quality to their work together here. But Costner isn't the only standout. Reynolds draws strong performances from just about everybody. My favorites are Tom Berenger as Devil Anse Hatfield's uncle, who reflexively fans the flames of every outrage because the feud has lent shape to his ugly, useless life, and Mare Winningham as Sally McCoy, who finds the same grotesque shadings in "stand by your man" as Costner does in "do what a man's gotta do." The whole saga is filled with gunplay and gruff pronouncements, but the violence is never glamorized. The combatants include old men, alcoholics, mental incompetents, hot-tempered teenagers and child soldiers. Most of the shooters and lynch mob participants are so drunk when they do their deeds it's a wonder they can stand up. In place of the Howitzer-loud pistol and rifle blasts heard in most dramas about men in Stetsons, the gunfire in Hatfields & McCoys sounds like the real thing: muted, firecracker-like pops. (When somebody fires a rifle from a hundred yards away in a wide shot, there's a half-second gap between the puff of smoke and the sound of the report.) There are a few glaring visual anachronisms – sculpted eyebrows and well-shampooed hair on the women, a couple of suspiciously modern-looking haircuts and obviously fake beards on the men – but these are par for the course in this kind of Hollywood super-production. For the most part they're outweighed by the sense that we're watching nineteenth-century people with nineteenth-century minds embroiled in a nineteenth-century drama.
All in all, this is a solid miniseries, worth watching for anyone intrigued by the subject matter. But I wanted it to be great, and I'm bummed that it's not. There's so much accounting of who did what to whom and when that by the third night you might feel as though you're stuck in one of those ramshackle cabins with the Hatfields or McCoys as they plot their next self-defeating move. This seems a legitimate approach (Hey, it's supposed to be uncomfortable!) until you think about how a more daring filmmaker might have teased out the bleak humor and dark poetry that's already present in the script. Sick jokes can be illuminating as well as hilarious: If you don't believe it, watch Dr. Strangelove. There's something disappointingly Puritan about this miniseries' devotion to meat-and-potatoes storytelling. It suggests that the filmmakers were worried that the material might get away from them, and retreated into sourness and record-keeping to prevent it from happening.
That's too bad, because the most powerful scenes in Hatfields & McCoys are where the filmmakers quit worrying about being serious and responsible and turn rudely hilarious, poetic or fanciful. There's a moment in the third night where Anse Devil Hatfield, pale and haggard and dark-eyed from pleurisy, watches a boy die on a battlefield; something about the framing, the swirling smoke behind Costner, and the dark circles under his eyes reminded me of Lord Hidetora in Akira Kurosawa's Ran (1985). The character isn't that old, yet in this subjective moment he seems ancient: a warrior realizing that he's been fighting forever and can't stop.