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Lawless (2012)

DIRECTOR: John Hillcoat

CAST: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Dane DeHaan

REVIEW:

Based on Matt Bondurant’s 2008 historical novel The Wettest County in the World, a semi-fictionalized account of the Prohibition-era bootlegging activities of his grandfather Jack Bondurant and his grand-uncles Forrest and Howard, Lawless doesn’t reach the level of the bootlegging film classics it aspires toward, but it’s still an entertaining and engaging, if unspectacular, outlaw adventure that’s soaked in enough blood and moonshine to appeal to fans of the genre.  Its release in late August, generally regarded as a dumping ground for films the studios are not confident enough about to release at the height of summer, is a bit of a shame.  Lawless is a well-made movie that deserves a higher profile than it received.

LawlessIn 1931 Franklin County, Virginia, the three Bondurant brothers are the best-known bootleggers in town.  The leader is Forrest (Tom Hardy), a taciturn hard-ass with a reputation for being “indestructible”, with loose cannon Howard (Jason Clarke) as backup, while the youngest, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), seems to be the runt of the litter.  But while Jack doesn’t have his brothers’ stomachs for violence, he has big ideas, admiring big-shot gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) and seeking with the help of his friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan) to expand the business beyond what Forrest has the ambition for.  But trouble is brewing in the foppish form of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a preening dandy and crooked cop from Chicago newly-appointed by corrupt local politicians essentially as an enforcer to get them a cut of the bootlegging revenue.  The bootleggers who give Rakes and his superiors kickbacks can keep their business going, while those who refuse are taken down, with Rakes quickly proving he has no compunction about using brutal methods to get his way.  When the Bondurants refuse to knuckle under to Rakes, increasingly vicious tit-for-tat warfare breaks out.  Meanwhile, romance brews both between Jack and preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and between Forrest and former Chicago nightclub dancer Maggie (Jessica Chastain), who has come to Virginia seeking “the quiet life”, which proves elusive when she’s entangled by association in the Bondurants’ war with Rakes and his henchmen.

Like many Prohibition-era gangster movies, the outlaws are portrayed more sympathetically than the lawmen.  That said, the movie doesn’t especially romanticize the Bondurants, who are not glamorous dashing gangsters (although Jack fancies himself one), but scruffy two-bit backwoods moonshiners.  Howard is a volatile borderline maniac, and while Forrest is unflappably composed and collected, both can spill blood without flinching.  But their worst qualities pale in comparison to Charlie Rakes, who doesn’t take long to prove he’s easily a nastier piece of work than any of the outlaws he’s dealing with.

While Lawless moves at a leisurely pace for the most part, most of the two hours pass fairly briskly.  In fact, the movie could have stood to be longer.  Subplots are given short shrift, with both the Jack/Bertha and Forrest/Maggie romances thinly-developed and half-baked.  Bertha isn’t given a chance to develop beyond a bland and generic “sheltered good girl seduced by outlaw”; Maggie gets a little more attention and feels a little more whole.  A couple times, the filmmakers also overly rely on montages that whisk through events that sometimes feel under-explained.  The climax is the weakest part, with the pace first seeming to drag it out, then rush to a somewhat anti-climactic conclusion.  This is the kind of movie that gets us wanting an all-out ending shootout, and while it’s not completely devoid of that, the way things wrap up is more understated than we expect—or might prefer—and not as satisfying as it could have been.  Still, if there’s something slightly ho-hum about how things are resolved, the way there is an enjoyable ride.  The expected staples of the genre—flashy period cars, moonshine, crooked lawmen, and lots of guns—are all onhand, and there are moments of humor and romance (though neither gets too much of the screentime).  This is thoroughly adult drama; in addition to graphic violence, there’s also a scene involving Jessica Chastain baring all.  The action comes in short bursts that are few and far between, but some non-violent scenes (such as the first encounter between Forrest and Rakes) simmer with tension.  Australian director John Hillcoat and screenwriter, musician Nick Cave previously collaborated on the gritty, brutal 2005 Australian drama The Proposition (also with Guy Pearce), and while Lawless isn’t as bleak as The Proposition, it has some of the same mix of picturesque landscape shots, meditative tone, jarringly abrupt brutal violence, and moral ambiguity.  As in The Proposition (in which David Wenham played an odious official), the most detestable character is on the side of “the law”, while everyone else exists in shades of gray, some lighter or darker than others, with no clear-cut heroes among either the cops or the outlaws.  Lawless is handsomely filmed, and Hillcoat captures sometimes strikingly picturesque images.  At the same time, he doesn’t shy away from bloodshed.  When the violence comes in Lawless, it is abrupt, graphic, and bloody, with moments brutal enough to be cringe-inducing, and at least one scene in particular that some viewers may find hard to take.  Our villain Charlie Rakes doesn’t have a monopoly on brutality; while Forrest may seem placid until sufficiently provoked, one disturbing scene removes any doubt that the lead Bondurant’s retribution can be savage.

guy pearce1While Hillcoat stacked the supporting deck with an ensemble of respected character actors (Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Oscar nominees Jessica Chastain and Gary Oldman), casting Shia LaBeouf in the lead role was a somewhat unconventional and risky move, with the young actor not typically associated with this kind of material (for LaBeouf, this was the point, stepping away from the Transformers series and trying to show himself as a serious actor).  In my opinion (which is not shared by all), LaBeouf does a fine job of holding his own.  Likability has always been LaBeouf’s strong suit, and his earnestness makes Jack sympathetic.  True, it’s easier to accept Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke as hard-bitten outlaws, but that suits Jack’s softer character.  More notably, he also pulls off scenes that require possibly more range of serious emotion than has ever been demanded of him before.  Tom Hardy, carrying around the extra pounds he packed on for The Dark Knight Rises‘  Bane (Lawless was released a month later but filmed shortly beforehand) adopts a mumbling accent and closed-off demeanor that makes the stoic Forrest seem like a relative of Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain.  The lead Bondurant does more talking with his fists—he has a penchant for brass knuckles—than his words, which seemingly have to be dragged out of him with a pair of pliers.  The movie’s real two standouts lie in the supporting cast.  Jessica Chastain combines sexiness, strength, and vulnerability as Maggie, who holds her own in a world of brutish men.  In fact, despite her comparative physical fragility, Maggie in some ways might be the toughest character in the movie.  Meanwhile, Guy Pearce chews scenery with lip-smacking relish, building Charlie Rakes into the kind of oily, sleazy bad guy whose comeuppance is rooted for from his first scene.  With the possible exception of Tim Roth (whose Archibald Cunningham in Rob Roy set a high bar for despicable villains), no actor is better at this kind of character than Pearce.  Also, like Roth in Rob Roy, Pearce finds the perfect balance of doing a little mustache-twirling without going so overboard that we can’t take his malice seriously.  Of the others, Mia Wasikowska is nice but underused and Gary Oldman has basically a glorified cameo (although he does get to shoot off a Tommy gun), with Jason Clarke and Dane DeHaan rounding out the principal cast and smaller roles for Bill Camp (as the conflicted local sheriff), and Noah Taylor (as a Banner henchman).

Between the deliberate pace, the sometimes muted acting, and the somewhat anti-climactic conclusion, there’s something slightly underwhelming about Lawless, but there’s also plenty of laudable qualities.  Those who are fans of the genre should find enough to appreciate to make it worth their while, and even for those who are not in particular (including myself), the film is compulsively watchable and engaging and never lost my interest.

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