They say that all gangster movies are really western films in disguise, with pinstripe suits and tommy guns replacing long duffel coats and holsters, but in John Hillcoat’s new prohibition-era movie, “Lawless”, never have the two genres meshed so well on our screens.
Shockingly violent, chaotic and frequently bloody, “Lawless” just debuted in the Lumiere theatre at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival to the biggest reception of any movie that has played so far. Simply put – it was awesome fun, a movie Sam Peckinpah would have been proud of making in his prime and although this isn’t a prestigious effort by any means, it is tremendous entertainment.
Just like the Aussie filmmaker’s previous works “The Proposition” and “The Road”, though falling less on lyricism and more with a willingness to please a popcorn audience, Hillcoat once again presents us a moralistic tale about the true animalistic nature of violence and what extremes humans are willing, actually incapable of escaping, when survival is at stake and livelihoods are threatened.
There are no necessarily good guys in an old fashioned sense, all characters aren’t nearly so simple as being black or white, it’s just some have shadier greys than others. But a shot to the gut or a punch to the head with brass nucks hurts just the same and instead what elevates all of Hillcoat’s movies to a high plateau is that he doesn’t shy away from showing us the effects, often horrific, sometimes long-lasting, of violence and just how brutal, messy and unglamorous it really is.
Based on the prohibition era book “The Wettest County in the World” by descendant Matthew Bondurant that we are told explicitly at the beginning is “Based on a true story”, Lawless endured a rocky road to production but was picked up by festival and Awards showcase extrordinaires The Weinsteins last year and they immediately scrapped the more contemplative titles (that included “Wettest County” and “The Promised Land” as contenders) for something much more marketable. Not that I actually hate the change as much as I did previously. Now that I’ve seen the film for myself, it has grown on me.
Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke and Shia LaBeouf star as a family bootlegging gang who find their moonshine dynasty in Franklin County, Virginia threatened by the authorities wanting a cut during the 30′s Prohibition era.
Hardy is the leader of the group as Forrest Bondurant, simmering intensity and smarts as he keeps the business together. The always versatile physical actor is pre-Bane size here (he’s big, but not yet the monster he will later become) and carries the legend of the Bondurant’s family name that keeps them ruling their market through exaggerated myths, fear and the local enforcement being willing to look the other way as long as they can have greasy palms. They call Forrest indestructible, an immortal who cannot be killed and although a man of few words, he is a man who knows not how to surrender or how to throw in the towel. He is “a man of principle” as he says and his commitment to the family is why they have gone down in legend. Hardy gives the best performance of the brothers, knowing his physical frame and eyes can deliver much of the resonance he so easily captures.
Clarke is a perpetually drunk and washed up looking brother Howard who carries a feverish zest for a fight and who stays loyal through the fight. Clarke arrives on his natural ability to play shady criminals from “Public Enemies” and other background character portrayals that add so much to the epic nature of a picture. He often does so much with so little screen time and here is no exception, playing a character here who would rather throw a punch than engage in conversation.
Our lead character though is Jack (Shia LaBeouf) who probably ends up with the most screen time and is our entry point into the family as the younger brother who hasn’t yet grown to the build of his siblings (and at his size at this age, looks like he never will). Jack wants in on the action and his eagerness and naivety to be part of the dangerous operation too often brings with it trouble.
After seeing how the boys run and get away with their business, the narrative kicks in when the bad guy comes to town. In the show-stealing turn, one that will forever cast a shadow over any future performances he gives, Guy Pearce’s is the outsider, a Special Agent from Chicago named Charlie Rakes who has been tasked with cleaning up Franklin County and because of their legend and “immortal” status (a delightful quip he delivers to hearing that), is determined to run the Bondurants out of town. By any means necessary too.
He is a slick haired, slimy, so precisely snake-like moving prick who is so effectively chilling that the sheer hint of him making another appearance on the screen brings with it a gasp and unease in the audience that shudders through the atmosphere that trouble is brewing. He enjoys violence, enjoys delivering punishment and Hillcoat and Pearce have crafted such a memorable bad-guy that the woman who was watching two seats directly to the left of me had her hand over her mouth and constantly gasping as he delivered his violence. He may be the big screen’s best villain since Javier Bardem was Anton Chigurah in “No Country For Old Men” and if any of the movie is likely to be awards lauded, it’s his.
“Lawless” is most enjoyable during the raising of the stakes between Rakes and the Bondurants and although there’s two love story subplots involving Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasiowska’s characters that do add a sense of future legacy for the brothers to fight for, they don’t get in the way of the main thrust of the story. Hillcoat knows we are here for the showdowns and the confrontations and he delivers on all fronts.
If there’s anything to feel disappointed about come the final credits time it’s that Gary Oldman’s billed supporting role is actually barely more than a cameo. Despite his almost top billing, he appears in only two scenes, both opposite Shia LaBeouf and is so painfully great in his introduction, a John Dillinger style mauling of some unfortunate enforcement officer chasing him, that we mourn another movie that we could have seen his character in.
“Lawless” was so nearly a movie that might have been. We mourned its loss a few times from existence when it looked like financing wasn’t going to come together, even with the likes of Ryan Gosling and Scarlett Johansson attached. Hollywood has little faith in Western movies like this but Hillcoat knew he had something with this picture and the quality of Nick Cave’s script that by some miracle it got off the ground (just look how many different companies have had a hand in the movie getting made and actually seen by audiences… it’s astonishing) and I hope The Weinsteins are able to market the entertaining nature of the film to grab the audience it deserves.
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