Fronted by all-star talent — with Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton playing the scraggly patriarchs of the feuding clans — the six-hour “Hatfields & McCoys” has a certain grungy intensity, a la “Deadwood,” but also features arid stretches, and too many supporting characters who register so sparingly you barely get to know them before they start catching bullets. Interesting but not particularly stirring, this ambitious miniseries spans decades, and sometimes feels like it. Then again, after “The Kennedys” wound up being punted to ReelzChannel, History should celebrate merely getting it on at all (profiling long-dead characters, apparently, has its advantages).
Opening during the Civil War and airing over three successive nights, the production introduces Devil Anse Hatfield (Costner) and Randall McCoy (Paxton) fighting side by side for the Confederacy. Devil Anse deserts, however, and by the time Randall returns home, the Hatfields have a thriving business going, leading to ill feelings and a property dispute.
More viscerally, Devil Anse’s crusty uncle (Tom Berenger) winds up murdering Randall’s brother, who not only has the temerity to wear a Union jacket but accuses the old coot of “fornicating” with his dog.
From there, the feud is on, with a series of escalating provocations and acts of violence, spiraling upward. There’s even a Romeo-and-Juliet-like romance between Devil Anse’s ladies man son Johnse (Matt Barr) and Randall’s daughter Roseanna (Lindsay Pulsipher), which pretty obviously isn’t going to end well.
Directed by Kevin Reynolds (whose lengthy relationship with Costner includes “Waterworld” and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”) from a script credited to Ted Mann and Ronald Parker, “Hatfields” has the courage to proceed at a slow-rolling pace, and feature battles as brutal as they are ugly, with a whole lot of shooting and often not many casualties. Such veracity, however, doesn’t always make for compelling drama, and at times it all feels like a long slog waiting to see who dies next.
None of this is a knock on the principals, who exhibit the gradual toll of the killing, even after McCoy’s side has begun to rely on a bounty hunter (Andrew Howard). Impressive cast includes British star Sarah Parish and Mare Winningham as Devil Anse and Randall’s spouses, respectively, and Powers Boothe as a judge in the Hatfield camp.
Producer-star Costner has done some of his best work in underappreciated Westerns like “Wyatt Earp” and “Open Range,” although this latest trip West doesn’t rise to that level. Nevertheless, it’s potent enough — more in subject matter than execution — to deliver for History, which, seemingly like every other basic cabler, is seeking to expand its profile, either through programs that have nothing to do with history or via scripted fare.
With both miniseries and true westerns in short supply, it’s unfortunate “Hatfields & McCoys” doesn’t provide a clearer verdict. Not that it’s bad, but the result’s just not worth all the shootin’ and hollerin’, much less fighting about.