Sunday, December 2, 2012

Lawless (2012)


Directed by John Hillcoat
Starring Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Guy Pearce
Runtime 116min - Rated R
4 Stars (out of 4)

Now on DVD or online streaming.

There are a lot of things to consider when watching “Lawless”. Is it factually accurate? Is that how depression-era Franklin County actually looked? And was it really that violent? Were Chicagoan gangsters constantly making trips to the mountain moonshine stills? I have none of those answers. 

Matt Bondurant, the author of the film’s source novel, “The Wettest County in the World”, is the grandson of Jack Bondurant who serves as the film’s main character and part-time narrator. Though I’m sure he did plenty of research for his novel, I would question the validity of stories passed down through generations of moonshiners by word-of-mouth. These kinds of stories are generally told at family gatherings. Family gatherings are generally accompanied by large volumes of moonshine in Franklin County, especially when that family is historically famous for its white lightning. Large volumes of moonshine are generally not good for verbally communicating factual information.  Also worthy of consideration is a character who survives illness, a throat slashing, and multiple gunshot wounds. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the story is closer to truth than legend. Since there’s no real way for me to verify or dismiss any of it,  I’ll just have to ignore the topic altogether. Besides, separating fact from fiction has little bearing on whether or not one will enjoy a film.

The Bondurant Brothers
The Bondurant family consists of three brothers; Forrest (Tom Hardy), the ringleader, Howard (Jason Clark), the muscle, and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the baby brother. Jack’s brothers are his envy. He wants their confidence and status. Constantly he tries to convince them he’s ready to become a bigger part of the moonshining operation but is met with harsh rebuttal. They force him to learn everything the hard way, but also try to protect his innocence. It’s a 190 proof catch-22. 

The catalyst for violence comes in the form of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes psychotically played by Guy Pearce. Rakes is an enforcer for the new Commonwealth’s Attorney and he’s brutally effective. Neither Rakes or the C.A. are prohibitionists mind you, they simply want their cut. Until their arrival it only took a few ethanol-filled mason jars to convince local lawmen to look the other way. Most are resistant to the expensive payoffs but Rakes destroys enough stills and bashes enough heads to change their minds. The Bondurants aren’t so easily swayed. 

 One of the few negative points, for me, concerned a scene with Deputy Rakes. He’s in his hotel room wearing a very nice suit - minus a jacket - and some grey gloves. On his bed sits a naked black woman shivering in fear. No explanation is given. I considered it was a sex thing, but he was fully clothed. Also, I was fairly certain his character was homosexual. That’s no so much because of my own bias judgment of his appearance, but Hollywood’s notoriously prejudiced portrayals. Either way, doesn’t the viewer deserve some explanation? I’m sure it’s in the book somewhere, but I shouldn’t have to read the source material to understand the film.

I guess viewers don’t really care what happens to single men, but if they have a love interest they suddenly don’t seem so expendable. The hard-edged Forrest starts to fall for Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), who’s looking for a job after she tires of Chicago’s violence. She gets a job at the Bondurant’s gas station/diner hybrid which seems to double as front operation. One night at work she’s mistreated by a couple of unruly perverts when Forrest steps in for the rescue. Later on they return to attack Forrest. Maggie soon arrives and becomes the centerpiece for what I believe is the most meaningless rape in cinematic history. You’ll see what I mean.

Jack’s love life is a little less dangerous. He becomes attracted to a random Mennonite girl named Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and goes to great lengths to court her even though they’ve never actually met before. I can only surmise this is due to some recently discovered bonnet fetish. She is, of course, the preacher’s daughter, because the daughters of deacons never make it into stories or movies.

At its heart, “Lawless” is a war movie. A damn good one too. It’s filled with the gritty reality of violence. The Bondurants are soldiers, defenders of righteousness and drunkenness. Maggie and Bertha are the women who give them the strength to fight. Special Deputy Rakes is the general who wields his deadly power to the applause of a corrupt government. Jack Bondurant starts out as a cadet but is finds his inner strength after the loss of a dear friend at the hands of the enemy. The battlefield is Franklin County, Va where, 70 years later, the local paper reveals the war has never stopped.

Accurate or not, the sets and costumes look great. The accents are thick and authentic. The little kid from “Even Stevens” has grown up to be a hell of an actor and Tom Hardy never disappoints.  The stills even look like the real thing (or so I hear). I grew up about an hour’s drive southwest of the “Wettest County” and its moisture keeps my area fairly damp. I’ve never drank the stuff myself, but I’ve seen it consumed and sold with regularity, always in mason jars.

Expectations are nearly as important as merit when it comes to judging a movie. I didn’t have many expectations for “Lawless” and the one’s that did exist were exceeded greatly. Director John Hillcoat worked with similar material in the much beloved “The Proposition” and both films were adapted by Nick Cave. I think the duo has found their calling and I’m looking forward to whatever they offer next. If none of this convinces you to see the movie, then I should also mention Jessica Chastain appears nude.

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