I have a confession.
I could only make it through the first two nights of the three night mini-series "Hatfields & McCoys" (starting 9 p.m. Monday, History Channel) and I skimmed the last hour and a half of those four hours.
That's not my way of telling you that the movie is bad. It's just my threshold of how much bleak, mindlness violence I can take.
Certainly, if you don't know the details of the feud between these families you know the broader story. The six-hour miniseries tells us the roots of the fighting that began with Devil Anse Hatfield (Kevin Costner) and Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton) and led to the massacre of family members on both sides across two states, international headlines and the intervention of the Supreme Court.
When the mini-series opens the two men are friends fighting together on Union side in the Civil War. McCoy is a deeply religious man; Hatfield, as the name Devil might suggest, is less so. The rift begins when Hatfield abandons his pledge to fight and flees the war to return home. McCoy stays; he ends up the only man in his battalion to survive and is imprisoned by the Confederacy for years. He returns home to his wife Sally (the always good Mare Winningham) and children as a shell of who he was because of what he's seen.
And he's plenty mad at his pal Hatfield for abandoning his post, and other issues. While he was gone, a Hatfield has killed a beloved McCoy brother. And the Hatfields are fairly well off; they've got land and timber rights. The McCoys are struggling.
It goes downhill from there. Soon a slimy McCoy cousin (a lawyer played by Ronan Vibert) tries to outfox the Hatfields and loses more land causing more resentment. Then the lawyer cousin convinces Randall to go to court when Randall believes a Hatfield has stolen one of the pigs he needs to feed his family. Yes, they go to court over a pig and it looks pretty silly, which stirs up more resentment. Powers Boothe plays the fair-minded and peacekeeping judge who hears the case, but he's a Hatfield, so that doesn't help matters.
Things really ramp up when Devil's playboy son Johnse (Matt Barr) falls for and impregnates Roseanna (Lindsey Pulsipher), McCoy's only daughter. Why did he go and do that?
As I mentioned, the violence in this film is relentless (and I'd guess historically accurate). There's an argument to be made that that's the right choice. You get a full sense of the foolishness of this feud, the agony of lives lost, the weariness of cruel acts that have little meaning. True, but man, six hours is an awfully long time to feel that bad.
It's tough to assess the film when you're so beat down, but in general I thought both Costner and Paxton had good moments. Costner is made for this kind of film; it feels like a Western even though it takes place in West Virginia and Kentucky, and that's his lane. Paxton looks more like a man of that time. His character is less reasonable I'd say than Costner's (although neither side is innocent in this battle), and so there is less nuance in his lines. But in his eyes you see the vacancy of a man lost to war and hatred. Jena Malone and Vibert are good, too, as evil McCoy family members.
"Hatfields & McCoys" seems crazy yet when you think of other similar feuds (Israelis vs. Palestinians; Hutus vs. Tutsis; Sikhs vs. Muslims) you know it's not uncommon. This grim movie proves hatred serves no one and poisons everyone.