The whole sordid mess (both the feud and the movie) starts with Costner's Devil Anse deserting the Confederate army before his fellow soldier Randolph Hatfield is captured by the Union. Hatfield returns to West Virginia where he settles back into the comforts of family while commanding a logging operation that allows him to accumulate both wealth and influence. Randolph returns home, bitter and broken by the war, his piety somehow made more harsh by his time in prison. According to the film, this is where the seeds of the feud are laid, as the recently-returned Randolph can't help but see Anse as a traitor (and I imagine like Dante, he Randolph reserves a special place in hell for traitors).
The Hatfield/McCoy feud doesn't really have one particular thing that sparks it--more like a series of escalating incidents, starting with Asa Harmon McCoy's (Chad Hugghins) own return from the war. He served on the Union side, and some, including Anse's uncle Jim Vance (Tom Berenger, almost unrecognizable) don't take to kindly to this betrayal of the Confederate effort.
You would think that putting a bullet in Harmon would be enough to ignite the hostilities, but it's really a dispute over a stolen pig that nudges things along. After a jury trial made of of six men from each side, officiated by a Hatfield judge finds a Hatfield not responsible for stealing one of Randolph's pigs, it's really just the push the whole conflict needs, with two McCoys killing a Hatfield witness who boasted about lying, setting off a chain of bloody reprisals.
That slippery slope is a a useful direction from which to approach the feud if it was being considered in a more episodic format. As it stands, this is a six hour miniseries which aims to show the full sprawl of the conflict, from multiple angles, and the current format has the feel of important story elements just being happening, stacked one piece on top of another.
I should talk now about the acting, and it would be easier here to point out the few good performances among the many terrible ones. The default style for most of the actors and actresses here is to do sort of a goofy hill people burlesque with hootin' and hollerin' and lots of "paws" and "pappies" peppered throughout their speech. It's hard to build any sympathy for these cartoon characters as they stalk and shoot or stab each other.
The two principles, Costner and Paxton give wildly varied performances. Costner gives Anse a quiet dignity mixed with just-below-the-surface feral cunning. Anse is a killer and a bad man but most of the time, he's just trying to do right by his people. I kept sensing the edges of a gripping drama about Anse and his mix of above-the-board and illicit business in the hills of West Virginia that kept getting interrupted by all of the feud nonsense.
Paxton's McCoy is a bit less nuanced, a religious zealot damaged by the war who's rotting on the inside from religious fervor and later, booze. I can't fully lay the blame on Paxton, whose character feels underwritten or at least not entirely understood. He never feels like a match for Anse.
Berenger is a standout as Jim Vance, a killer through and through as well as Anse's right-hand-man. The actor looks wild, and when his blood's up you might worry that he's actually feral. Powers Booth also does some good work as Judge Wall Hatfield, but that's about all I have to say on the positive front for the acting.
The miniseries benefits from some strong production values and a couple of well-staged shootouts, but they can't really overcome the actors performing as hard as they can (to excess) on the screen. Having grown up in the South, I know what people from the region sound like, and it's nothing like this Beverly Hillbillies for the History Channel set imitation on display here.
The story of the Hatfields and McCoys is one worth telling onscreen, and Hatfields & McCoys notwithstanding, maybe it will be one day.
Besides a making-of featurette, the set also includes the "I Know These Hills" music video featuring Kevin Costner and the band Modern West.
Hatfields & McCoys is available on DVD and Blu-ray.