A film review by Craig J. Koban September 5, 2012
2012, R, 104 mins.
2012, R, 104 mins.
Jack: Shia LaBeouf / Forrest: Tom Hardy / Howard: Jason
Clarke / Charlie: Guy Pearce / Maggie: Jessica Chastain / Floyd:
is THE GODFATHER of Prohibition-era hillbilly films.
A somewhat fictionalized account of Matt Bondurant’s novel THE
WETTEST COUNTY IN THE WORLD – which, in turn, was based on his own
grandfather and great uncle’s struggles as moonshiners in Depression
ravaged Virginia - the film is unequivocally about unwholesome and
sometimes grotesque people, so much so that all parties “good” and
“bad” commit acts of such brutality that it’s difficult at times to
disseminate the heroes from the villains.
LAWLESS is a blood-soaked tale of friendship, loyalty, betrayal and
fending for one’s rights using any means necessary within a
self-contained vacuum of immoral ethics.
As one of the protagonists in the film tells his brother, “It is
not the violence that sets a man apart.
It’s the distance he’s prepared to go.”
can see why the film’s director - the Aussie-born, Canadian-raised John
Hillcoat - was attracted to this type of material.
He made, for my money, one of the most atmospheric westerns I’ve
ever seen in 2006’s THE PROPOSITION (making my Ten
Best Films list of that year), which was - like LAWLESS - a film
about unscrupulous lawman facing off against a battalion
of brothers in arms. He also
made the unforgettable post-apocalyptic drama THE ROAD in 2009 (which also
made my Ten Best Films list of that year) that told a poignant and heart-rending
tale of a small family unit that strived to stay alive when faced with
insurmountable hardships. Hillcoat
carries many of these themes and aesthetic sensibilities forward in
LAWLESS in the manner that he envisions a world that is violently
authentic and simmers with a stunning sense of period and time.
The environment of LAWLESS may seem less epic and mythic in scale
when compared to THE PROPOSITION and THE ROAD, but Hillcoat nonetheless
captures the oppressiveness of the desperate era while, at the same time, highlighting the underlining malice of all its characters.
story takes place in 1930’s Franklin County where the Bondurant brothers
reside, made up of the soft-spoken and weakly Jack (Shia LaBeouf); the hot
headed and ill-tempered Howard (Jason Clarke); and the gruff, introverted,
and monosyllabic ring leader Forrest (Tom Hardy, his first film appearance since THE
DARK KNIGHT RISES). Since
this is Prohibition times, the brothers have turned to bootlegging to earn
a living, but they are certainly not the only ones aspiring to do so.
Their fledging operation is threatened with the appearance of
Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (an unrecognizable Guy Pearce), a Chicagoan
that wishes to stop those that violate the country’s laws.
Rakes is, alas, no righteous and noble minded Elliot Ness; conversely,
he’s a frighteningly unhinged psycho that’s in deep with the mob and
wants to take a large part of the Bondurant’s "action" with
or without their cooperation. Predictably,
all proverbial hell breaks loose when the brothers refuse to back down,
as they’d rather die than let some deplorable lawman from the big city
take their moonshine away.
somewhat randomly into the narrative – written by Nick Cave, who also
worked with Hillcoat on THE PROPOSITION – are a few subplots of varying
degrees of interest involving two ladies that find their way into the
brothers’ lives and business. There’s the story of Maggie Beauford
(the gorgeous Jessica Chastain), a former exotic dancer from the Windy
City that left it to find peace in the quiet, backwater serenity of
Virginia, but ironically finds herself embroiled in more bloodshed
when she forges a relationship with Forrest.
The second woman is a preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska) that
is being romanced by Jack in a somewhat sweet and tender subplot that
never gestates with the dramatic payoff that it should have.
The underlining plot developments involving LaBeouf’s greenhorn
kid that learns to shut-up and man-up, defend himself, and protect his
family’s interest sort of careens about with a nagging predictability.
those are minor quibbles, because LAWLESS still highlights Hillcoat as a
filmmaker with an acute grasp of mood, tension, and atmosphere.
Working with the beautiful and foreboding compositions of
cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, Hillcoat stir ups the remoteness and
dust-covered intimacy of his low key and small-scale period settings while
channeling a sense of unease and menace.
Wisely, the film never paints the Bondurant boys as innocent
saints, nor does it glamorize them as pulp heroes: they are flawed and
unhealthily prideful men driven to wanton acts of vicious comeuppance when compelled to. Most
of the nail-biting tension in the film is generated with the anticipation of just
how badly one party will retaliate on the other. At certain points in LAWLESS you’re really left wondering
whether anyone will make it out of this film alive.
Hilllcoat never shies away from the inherent barbarism in the story
either, which only amps up the edgy nihilism that much more.
films are lucky to have one great performance; LAWLESS has two.
Firstly, there’s Pearce as the freakishly compulsive and power
hungry Rakes that sinisterly parades around in the film sporting finely
tailored suits, a pungent aroma of overused cologne, plucked-out eyebrows
and a hairline slicked back and parted down the middle by what appears to
be a large caliber bullet. He
may outwardly appear effeminate, but underneath lurks a cruel and despotic
madman. Secondly, there’s
Tom Hardy, who creates a macho and tough exterior in Forrest
that often communicates with low and inaudible grunts that manages to speak
volumes at key times in ways that several words would never accomplish.
Watching Hardy as the elder Bondurant – who seems to use his raw physicality,
stillness, and penetrating gaze to weaken his opponents up for the kill
– I’m reminded as to why he’s such a mesmerizing screen presence.
Those that doubt that assertion have never seen BRONSON, WARRIOR,
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES…or LAWLESS, for that matter.
When Hardy’s broad-shouldered frame and low simmering intensity
enters a scene he’s
impossible to gaze away from.
Chastain does what she can with a largely formulaic role of the beauty
that tames Hardy’s beast, but it’s a testament to her as an
authoritative actress that she can hold her own in scenes against Hardy
and Pearce with a real feisty conviction. Shia LeBeouf makes viewers forget about how shrill and
borderline obnoxious he was in the TRANSFORMERS films by reminding us here
in LAWLESS how quietly and persuasively he can tap into his characters.
Gary Oldman – one of the great thespian chameleons – shows up
in a far-too-brief, but memorable turn as mob man Floyd Banner that finds
himself working in cahoots with the Bondurants.
LAWLESS grasps for and almost reaches masterful status as a backwater outlaw tale. It’s gorgeously shot, impeccably acted, has a hit-you-in-the-gut viciousness and immediacy (the film’s high gore quotient is not for the faint of heart) and contains endlessly evocative ambience. The film, though, is certainly the lesser of Hillcoat’s last two efforts, but the director owns and dominates LAWLESS' material through and through as so few would as he effortlessly transports viewers to its desolate and unwelcoming world where right and wrong to both the crooks and the coppers are vague abstractions. LAWLESS lingered with me days after I saw it as a very good film about very bad people.