August 29, 2012


by Vadim Rizov


"Ungh." Every time Tom Hardy grunts in Lawless, it's a Rick Ross-level event, a laconic warning from a hard man not to be messed with on any account. It's 1931, and Forrest Bondurant (Hardy) is a bootlegger prospering in Franklin County, Virginia. Affluence is relative: in the middle of gross poverty, the obdurate Bondurant brothers are a few cuts above because they own a roadside diner/bar and drive long distances to sell moonshine, paying the police as they must. The arrival of "lawman" Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) poses a problem, since the Chicago transplant wants a bigger cut than proud Forrest will agree to. Proud rural brothers vs. corrupt urban cop, game on.

Gorgeously shot by Benoît Delhomme, Lawless nails time and place. Smoke rises everywhere: from Forrest's cigars, from stills hidden deep in the forest, from cups of coffee poured by Chicago-dancer-on-the-run Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain, wasted in this super-masculine testosterone fest). As in director John Hillcoat's last two movies The Proposition and The Road, cusp-of-modernity interactions with nature determine the plot, with the Bondurants impoverished rulers of their dusty Dust Bowl existence. Forrest is a hilariously macho cipher, but he's positively 4D next to sibling Howard (Jason Clarke), who's effectively a walking punchline that likes to get drunk for days and punch people in the face ("Have you met Howard?" are words you never want to hear). The other brother is Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the ostensible dramatic center of focus, though he never does anything to justify his status besides acting annoying. The German word "backpfeifengesicht" means, more or less, "a face badly in need of a fist," and the widely reviled LaBeouf fits that description. Correlation doesn't equal causation, but for the time being, it has been decided that millions of people showed up to see Transformers to bask in his charms. LaBeouf wants actorly cred, and Hillcoat needs his bankability. The mutually amenable solution is constant hazing: face, meet fist, over and over.


More notably, this is the second pairing of Aussies Hillcoat and legendary musician/cult idol Nick Cave with his screenwriter hat on. Their first collaboration was 2006's The Proposition, a brutally violent but deeply felt/thought-through take on Australia's violent colonial, Aborigine-slaughtering past. The grotesquerie was earned and given intellectual heft, putting Kipling-esque civilizers through their savage paces. Aside from contributing a score, Cave sat out Hillcoat's wan 2009 take on Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but Lawless picks up right where they left off: hard men, savage violence, vaguely Old Testament mutterings, incongruously articulate soundbites on The Nature of Man (a rare non-grunting Hardy moment: "It's not violence that sets men apart, it's the distance they're willing to go").

But where The Proposition strained—perhaps even a bit too much—to justify its violence with a coherent thesis, Lawless finds the foreigners taking American gangster-movie mythology for a fast, stupid ride. The Weinstein Company's marketing this as a thoughtful, important film, but don't be fooled. This is the kind of big, dumb action movie that climaxes with Rakes screaming "Kill those sons of bitches!" before approximately 150 shots are fired in five seconds. There are suggestions of wider context in pointed shots of Whites-Only drinking fountains and nighttime vistas of Franklin County's streets lit only by homeless bums' fires. Jack courts local preacher's daughter Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska) with new dresses and takes photos of her posing in her dress. "That's how them movie stars do it in California," she says, presumably making some kind of ironic point about criminal/celebrity culture (Bonnie and Clyde: They're Just Like Us!).


None of this matters. The first half of Lawless features lots of violence punctured with pastoral interludes, while the second half features lots and lots of inventively deranged violence with no let-up. Hillcoat's spoken repeatedly about how the movie's portrait of Prohibition two years away from its end, with all the attendant needless violence, is supposed to strongly parallel the contemporary war on drugs. But until DEA agents are tarred and feathered and left for dead on the border, the parallel won't wash with any kind of credibility. This is violence for its own kinetic sake, most exhilaratingly in a good old-fashioned '80s style montage. Jack kicks his car into gear, and the belch the exhaust it gives off is robust enough to propel the camera backwards in response, the kickoff to prolonged mayhem with no distracting plot points. It's a higher-class affair than usual, to be sure, with Ralph Stanley singing "White Light/White Heat," but it's still a rowdy assembly of speeding jalopies and flying bullets.

The center of the film is mush, somehow never settling upon a single character or cluster of interests. The brothers' relationship is summed up in a single shot which cuts from Shia getting his hair messed-up to a cockfight in their driveway. That's about as deep as characterization goes, but the (incongruously) gorgeously shot violence is a great deal of fun. There will be massive, gratuitous gasoline-fueled explosions and an eyebrow-less Pearce howling "It's time for me to take out the trash." Forget The Expandables 2: this is the revivalist action movie of the summer.

Bookmark and Share

Posted by ahillis at August 29, 2012 10:15 AM