Mark Reviews Movies

Lawless

LAWLESS

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: John Hillcoat

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

MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity)

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 8/29/12


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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 29, 2012

At least Lawless doesn't assign romantic ideals or virtues to its bootlegging heroes that they do not possess. They do not make speeches about freedom or liberty in the face of injustice—in this case Prohibition. They make and distribute moonshine because they can. They're good at it, and screenwriter Nick Cave (adapting Matt Bondurant's novel The Wettest County in the World, which happens to be about his forefathers) strongly suggests they're not much good at or for anything else. That may be the truth, but it does not make for appealing, let alone sympathetic, heroes.

They are cruel men living in a violent world. The best that can be said of the three brothers at the center of the movie is that their motives are pure. They bootleg for the money. They expand their operation to make more of it. They fight against the police to keep as much of it as they can.

There's no hypocrisy in the brothers' behavior, which is more than can be said for their enemies, who are equally vicisious but have the edge over the protagonists with their unbridled corruption. These are men meant to uphold the law—no matter how ridiculous it may be—who have decided to turn a blind eye to the big business of bootlegging as long as they're getting their cut. These are the characters with some actual fascination to them—better to be inherently conflicted and malicious than ruthless and bland.

The Bondurant brothers are the most successful bootleggers in Franklin County, Virginia during the early 1930s (recreated with grimy authenticity by production designer Chris Kennedy and art director Gershon Ginsburg). As the Great Depression leaves so many in poverty, Jack (Shia LeBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Howard (Jason Clarke) are doing just fine. They run a local diner for the sake of appearances.

Forrest is the de facto leader—a man with the reputation of being immortal after surviving a few brushes with death. He prefers to take his fights into a close range, so as to use his signature brass knuckles. He chooses those fights only when they're necessary. Howard, the eldest, doesn't; he's brash and impuslive (and also mostly in the background). Jack is the youngest and the brains of the operation. He's never gotten into a fight, and his brothers pick on him for his relative pacifism. He's not above it, though; one day, he watches as the infamous gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) kills his foes in the middle of a street in broad daylight with a Tommy gun. Jack is in awe of the moment.

The Bondurant boys have a comfortable arrangement with local law enforcement: They pay a bit in their product or cash, and the county sheriff looks the other way. It has served both parties well, but then Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a special deputy from Chicago, arrives in town, looking to ensure that the moonshiners in the area pay a protection fee to his office.

This is the last straw for the brothers, who decide to stage a very public revolt of the new authority in town by refusing to cough up the cash. Meanwhile, a pretty woman from Chicago named Maggie (Jessica Chastain) arrives looking for work and an escape from her former life as a dancer, which eventually leads to a romantic attachment for Forrest, and Jack's eye is drawn to Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of a local Mennonite preacher who likes the idea of the more worldly living Jack could provide her.

The romances are secondary—only an easy way to show that there is more to the brothers (well, two of them, at least) than their illegal trade and dispositions toward agression—and, as such, they feel forced and rushed (Maggie's feelings for Jack are relegated to quick glances, and Bertha exists in the story primarily to give Jack a reason to unintentionally put their business in danger). They don't concern Cave or director John Hillcoat too much, though, and the movie focuses primarily on a lot of testosterone-fueled posturing.

Like its central characters, at least Cave and Hillcoat are straightforward about their intentions (apart from the awkward placement of its female characters, who are mostly forgotten whenever they aren't necessary to the plot), and the story unfolds in a flurry of pummelings, shootings, and stabbings that punctuate the battle of wills between men with few moral qualms (One particularly gruesome episode really puts a character's legend to the test). The performances hold it together for the most part, with Hardy growling his way through role that requires little more than the sense that he could explode at any moment and Pearce sinking his teeth into a villain whose malice is only matched by his foppishness.

This is inherently repetitive, though, and the added layer of familiarity as the war between the two parties begins to grow into a mission of personal revenge does not help. As an exploration of authoritative corruption and transparent criminality, Lawless is as half-hearted as its narrative.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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