The feud between Hatfields and McCoys is so legendary that the feud itself far outweighs any knowledge about the two families. Even people unfamiliar with the history of the dispute know it’s one of the most iconic battles in American lore.
The History Channel — presenting something other than its usual doomsday prophecies and extreme-occupation reality shows — will give viewers all the background and minutiae of this bloody feud in the three-part miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys.”
It all began during the Civil War. The feud ostensibly stems from a decision by “Devil” Anse Hatfield (Kevin Costner) to give up on the Confederacy in the waning days of the war. His Confederate army unit mate Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton), meanwhile, chose to fight on.
Anse and Randall, the family patriarchs, set the hostile tone, but the bloodshed takes its toll on other relatives of both families. A Hatfield named Jim Vance (Tom Berenger being very Tom Berenger-y) kills a McCoy for fighting for the Union during the war … and because the McCoy accused Vance of sodomizing his dog, a much more killable offense. What begins as an unpleasant detente slowly escalates into a murderous backwoods border war between the Hatfields (West Virginia) and the McCoys (Kentucky).
This feud spanned decades, so there is a lot of territory to cover in three nights. After a weak start, things get pretty good, but not great. The second night, a compelling examination of hubris and guilt, is the standout of the three installments.
Writer Ted Mann — whose credited work includes “Deadwood,” though that show is notorious for being under the complete control of creator David Milch — feels like a good fit, but his script doesn’t earn empathy for the characters and their tragic tale, despite strong performances by the cast. Costner is especially impressive.
My other complaint is that the narrative paints the Hatfields as the heroes — despite their own wrongdoings — but that could just be thanks to director Kevin Reynolds, who has worked with Costner on numerous films dating back to “Fandango.”
“Hatfields & McCoys” requires a time investment, with the slow start and six-hour run time, but it’s ultimately worthwhile for the detailed look at the feud and some western-style atmosphere and action.