Lawless

Year of the Southern

Lawless, based upon Matt Bondurant’s historical novel The Wettest County in the World, is violent to the degree that it makes something like The Expendables look like The Wizard of Oz.  This isn’t due to gratuity, mind you; the various malicious acts in Lawless occur due to some unspoken code of violence upheld by its characters, and while there’s a lot of blood, violent scenes are effective not because of spectacle, but because of what is happening to whom, and the degree to which the event itself frustrates or discomforts the viewer – I’ve always said one of the most most violent scenes in film was Sonny’s death in The Godfather.

The film follows the historical Bondurant brothers, Virginia moonshine bootleggers in Prohibition-era Franklin County.  Forrest (Tom Hardy) is effectively the boss, and is feared for being legendarily invincible.  Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the youngest, who feels he has something to prove to Forrest, who often treats him like a child.  Howard (Jason Clark) is apelike and unpredictable.  Together, they are a local treasure, and along with the lovable Cricket (Dane Dehaan), they make and jar the best moonshine available, supplying everyone from local yokels to fearsome gangsters, including Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), who seems at the outset like he might become the villain, but despite his tendency to walk into the street and casually mow down groups of people with a Thompson submachine gun, Banner is actually quite agreeable.

Jessica Chastain, who created the greatest female performances of 2011 (and, to be honest, maybe some of the best film performances ever) in Take Shelter and The Tree of Life, appears as the enigmatic Maggie, who wanders into town and snags a job in the Bondurants’ restaurant in order to escape the Chicago city life.  This role is not the stuff of her characters from last year – in fact, she is given criminally little to do – but her limitless dedication to every one of her characters produces the film’s best dramatic scene when she finally reveals to the mumbling Forrest (at this point her romantic partner) that she’s tired of him going out and sustaining near-fatal injuries every single day.

Mia Wasikowska, who also had one of the most moving performances of last year in Jane Eyre, appears as Bertha, playing opposite LaBeouf’s character, who goes so far as infiltrating a church meeting in order to steal a smile from her.  Her performance is great, but I get the feeling she’s acting around a group of Hollywooders indulging so deeply in their own project that they don’t realize she’s secretly a leading actress, and one of the better ones we have right now.

The trouble reaches new levels when Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) ventures into Franklin County, ordered by corrupt feds to seize the Bondurants’ operation: first, he offers a deal, but his foppish nature and condescending personality illicit a belligerent response from Forrest, and we soon have a turf war on our hands.  If he can’t have a share of the Bondurants’ profits, he must destroy them, and he succeeds on most levels: razing their still with explosives, brutalizing Jack, murdering innocent parties, harassing (and later unspeakably harming) Maggie, and sending multiple goons to get rid of Forrest while framing Banner for it.  The brothers aren’t duped, however, and before you know it, one of the most intense firefights since The Guard takes place at an otherwise gorgeous covered bridge.

The film features one of Hardy’s best performances in the unbelievably tough and lovably soft-spoken Forrest, and LaBeouf’s character is surprisingly sympathetic, proving he can do things other than yell and fidget in big-budget shlock about giant robots.  Even his accent seems authentic (it should be noted, however, that I’m a Northerner).  My one major regret about this film is that Jessica and Mia, two of the best actresses working today, are relegated to supporting cast and never have a single scene together (at the end, we see them in the same room together, but they never share so much as a glance).  I suppose, at heart, this is a movie about dudes shooting each other, and I understand the concept of focus as well as anyone, but it still seems a waste, as these two could carry a film with no other actors at all, if it came down to it.  Pearce, accustomed to playing irredeemably evil characters, basically plays the Devil here.  “You know, I don’t much like you,” he is told by a local lawman forced to work with him.  “Yeah?” he responds, unshaken.  “Not many do.”  It would have been interesting to see him clash with Oldman’s Banner, but the film doesn’t lend time for it.

Lawless is reaching for an Oscar, but its plot is actually a carbon copy of John Nichols’ novel The Milagro Beanfield War (also adapted into a film featuring Christopher Walken), a story about regionalism and also featuring a showdown between simple country folks and federal law enforcement.  The main difference is that in Nichols’ story, the main character is defending a beanfield instead of a distillery, and the women are tougher and better respected.  Lawless deals with (most of) its own characters well, though, and being one of those derivative-yet-supposedly-true stories this country knows and loves, it may yet bag the glory its American underdogs feel they so duly deserve.

Lawless (2012); written by Nick Cave; based upon the novel by Matt Bondurant; directed by John Hillcoat; starring Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, and Mia Wasikowska.

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