Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Lawless: A Tale of Bootleggin' Brotherly Love
Lawless was originally titled The Wettest Country in the World, and it's based on the book of the same name by Matt Bondurant, the grandson and great-nephew of some of the characters in the film. The movie jumps right into the main story: the Bondurant brothers make some of the god-damned best moonshine in Franklin County, VA. They have a good hold of the market, and when it comes to opposition, they--especially Forrest, who speaks mainly in grunts--take no prisoners. Soon after meeting the brothers (the third of which is named Howard [Jason Clarke], who has a mean streak due to his moonshine alcoholism), a group of men ride up into the Bondurant compound. These men are led by a man named Rakes (Memento's Guy Pearce), a special agent from Chicago with a chip on his shoulder and a stick up his ass--maybe literally...he sure seems a bit off. He doesn't really have any eyebrows and reminded me of Steve-O when he shaved his body hair for Jackass. The problem with Rakes isn't Pearce's slightly-over-the-top performance (he speaks in a villainous high-speech, is immaculately dressed and wears more perfume than whores at a brothel), but the fact that he enters Lawless with no buildup or back story. Who is this man, this foil for the Bondurant brothers, and why does he care so much about bringing them down?
The brothers base their operation out of a bar/restaurant (and gas station, I guess. I only know this because during one violent episode a pump-nozzle gets shoved into someone's mouth). Police hassle them there, rival booze-runners hassle them on the road and during drop-offs, and nearly every few scenes showcase a brutally violent showdown that has Shia LaBeouf getting his ass kicked (something he needed to do as an act of goodwill for movie-viewers worldwide) and Tom Hardy breaking bones with a set of brass knuckles, grumbling in his Neanderthal charm. Two women eventually enter the picture, and basically their only purpose is to add a female eye-candy presence to the proceedings: Maggie (Jessica Chastain) is a dancer from Chicago who was tired of violent men, clearly making the wrong choice to move to Franklin county. She becomes a worker for the Bondurants, performing various tasks to help the business run and add a pretty face. Bertha (Alice in Wonderland's Mia Wasikowska) is a preacher's daughter that LaBeouf's Jack falls madly in love with. Neither woman adds anything particularly interesting to Lawless. I won't even get into the fact that the great Gary Oldman is in the film as a powerful gangster, as he is so under-utilized that I questioned his presence altogether.
Lawless was directed by John Hillcoat, and he was definitely a good choice: just like in his desolate films The Proposition and The Road, the way he films the land and the way he shows the shocking flashes of violence are top-notch. It was also written by musician Nick Cave (who also wrote Hillcoat's The Proposition). Unfortunately, Lawless doesn't quite match up with the former film's weirdness and original story. This is nothing we haven't seen before in the good Western films of the past twenty years, or even the last two years in HBO's wonderful and far-more-engaging Prohibition epic Boardwalk Empire.
It's impossible to ignore the effort that the cast and crew put into Lawless. When Shia LaBeouf finally shows that he has the talent to act alongside wonderful character actors Hardy and Pearce, I consider that a win for everyone. But it still doesn't change the fact the film feels disjointed and the ending--the inevitable violent conclusion--predictable. Occasionally, one scene will jump to the next, and the viewer feels like they missed something. Gary Oldman's character, as I stated before, seems particularly pointless. Apparently, there is a reason for this: Lawless supposedly had an original three-hour cut before the studio made Hillcoat shave it down to a more viewer-friendly two hours. It wasn't for the best. When blood is spurting and the brothers are warring, Lawless has a brutal and visceral appeal--for the rest of the film, I felt like I had guzzled too much moonshine. (B)