Last Night's Viewing: Hatfields & McCoys, Channel 5
"From here on out, I fight only for my own," announces "Devil" Anse Hatfield, as he prepares to desert from a group of retreating Confederates. When he says this, Anse sincerely believes that he's announcing his retirement from futile combat.
In fact, his remark is an unwitting declaration of war because, as the head of the Hatfields of West Virginia, he's fated to preside over the most notorious family feud in American history. Hatfields & McCoys, Channel 5's latest US import, opens the story of that long and dim-witted exchange of cruelties before it actually begins. When Anse lights out for home a friend tries to persuade him not to run – Randall McCoy, a comrade-in-arms who is later to become Anse's bitterest enemy.
The two families live by the Tug Fork river in West Virginia, in country where moonshine liquor and narrow valleys can turn even an offhand remark into a motive for murder. After Randall's brother suggests that Anse's uncle is a little closer to his dog than is socially conventional, he's shot dead in retaliation for the insult, and a spark is struck that starts the fire smouldering. There's abundant tinder to ensure that the flame catches. While Randall has returned impoverished from the war, Anse is wealthy and getting wealthier, buying up land for the timber rights, and using the profits to buy more acres. "It's like wiping your ass with a wagon wheel. Ain't never gonna end, is it?" chuckles a relative, in a phrase that applies just as well to the circularity of revenge killing.
Kevin Costner, who won an Emmy for his performance as Anse, plays him as a man willing to let bygones be bygones: "There's no North, no South. Just people who got money and people who ain't," he says. "I mean to do business with them who have." But Randall won't let the enmity drop and seizes any opportunity to exercise it. A court case over a stolen pig ends in another murder and then a humiliating face-off in court. And once the toxin of injured pride has been added to the mix there's no healing the rift. As a basic plot, tit for tat and then tit again has its limitations. As always with such engagements, there's a danger that no one outside the fight will understand what it's about or care deeply either. But Hatfields & McCoys has enough quid-spitting grit in it to keep you watching, and Costner reminds you that he can command a screen, in the right kind of inexpressive role. Ronan Vibert has a nice turn too as Perry Cline, a McCoy lawyer who isn't above using extra-judicial means to get what he wants, and there's a Romeo and Juliet plot twist (drawn from the real events) to give you a brief break from the stabbing and shooting.
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