The producers of Hatfields & McCoys had a major hurdle to overcome in selling this outstanding dramatization of the legendary post-Civil War feud between two extended families to audiences: convey the tragedy in spite of the feud’s more absurd, if not comedic status within pop culture and popular entertainment.
Made for the History Channel as a classically structured 3-part mini-series (in the best sense), the writers stayed close to the key events, downplaying some of the nastier details as well as streamlining the narrative into a tight, interconnected tale, and while the Blu-ray doesn’t contain any hard documentary separating fact from obvious dramatic license, H&M immediately affects viewers as each violent act – beginning with the killing of a war-ravaged McCoy by an elder Hatfield – launches a series of reactive assaults.
The suspicion of the Hatfield’s involvement in the murder festers within the McCoys, ultimately erupting in court over an unrelated case concerning ownership of a specific swine. By this point the hatred had already begun to steep so severely that it wouldn’t have mattered which way the judge – one Valentine Hatfield - had sided; the losing family would’ve blamed the other, and provoked some reaction to enable a little payback.
From top to bottom H&M is extremely well cast, and with few exceptions, there are no insignificant roles. The best parts were reserved for the veteran cast members, and this is easily some of Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton’s strongest work, playing family patriarchs ‘Devil’ Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy, respectively.
Powers Booth is equally strong as the judge, the rare Hatfield determined to use the law to settle disputes, but the real scene-stealer is Tom Berenger, virtually unrecognizable as the relative who makes the first (if not penultimate) McCoy kill. It’s a letter-perfect performance that makes up for Berenger’s last decade of mediocre TV and direct-to-video work.
Matching the charismatic cast are strong supporting actors including Mare Winningham as Randall McCoy’s wife, and Jena Malone & Lindsay Pulsipher as McCoy cousins who become involved with Johnse Hatfield (Matt Barr), Anse’s son who’s more concerned with making moonshine and courting women than perpetuating family war.
H&M’s cast is also comprised of several U.K. actors, including Sarah Parish as Anse’s wife, Ronan Vibert as smooth-voiced, slime-ball lawyer Perry Cline, and Andrew Howard as ‘Bad’ Frank Phillips, who ultimately leads the posse that apprehends a batch of Hatfields for an epic murder trial in Kentucky. (Doc Martin’s Joe Absolom is also among the cast, but his role as Selkirk McCoy is reduced to a just a handful of scenes.
Set around the Kentucky-West Virginia border, H&M was actually shot in a pristine mountain valley in Romania, and director Kevin Reynolds makes sure every shot exploits the beauty of the remote location, with big skies and early morning mists. The period décor is exquisite, the score is beautifully evocative of Appalachian acoustic instruments, and there are a lot of practical special effects. (The bonus making-of featurette, which is pretty standard, provides footage of the vintage arms and explosive effects used in the battle scenes.)
H&M is both a cautionary tale against the acceptance of a violent, insular culture, as well a snapshot of the hard climate in post-Civil War America where the rawness of political divisions were still red, and alcohol was a major enhancer of primal emotions. There’s a tremendous quality of booze consumption among characters that suggests had the perpetrators been sober most of the time, less guns would’ve been fired so instinctively.
Kevin Costner (who also co-produced) and director Kevin Reynolds have made several films together, including the infamous Waterworld (1995), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), and Fandango (1985). Costner also produced Reynold’s weird Easter Island epic Rapa Nui (1994).
Also available: a 2012 interview with co-composer Tony Morales, and a 2013 interview with co-composer John Debney.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan