Prohibition Era crime movies are a Hollywood classic, known for Tommy guns, femme fatales, and dirty cops that make the real criminals the sympathetic heroes of the show. Lawless, the new bootlegging crime drama with an all-star cast, draws on many of these traditions, but pairs them with a gorgeous rural setting and wonderful character development.
Lawless tells the story of the Bondurant brothers, Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and their bootlegging business. Local legend holds that the boys are invincible, supported by anecdotal evidence from World War I, the Spanish Flu Epidemic, and general hard living. After watching his entire regiment drown in the war, Howard doesn’t speak much and spends most of his days drinking moonshine. Forrest acts as the family patriarch, a strong, silent type who runs both the family gas station/diner and the bootlegging operation while raising little brother, Jack, the ambitious runt of the family. The Bondurants have a good thing going and no trouble with local law enforcement (some of their regular customers) until the district attorney brings in Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) to get the bootlegging boom in Franklin County, Virginia under control. Rather than putting bootleggers out of business, Rakes’s plan is to make them pay heavy fees for police protection and for undisrupted transport. Not only do the Bondurants refuse to follow anyone else’s rules, they make a special enemy in Rakes, a dirty cop with an affinity for fine clothing, perfume, and violence. To further complicate matters, famous criminal Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) also arrives from Chicago taking control of a sizable portion of bootleggers. Meanwhile, Forrest runs into trouble defending Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), the diner waitress, leaving room for Jack and his best friend Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan) to step in and modernize the family’s other business. Between turf wars and the constant threat of Rakes and the police, however, it’s only a matter of time before things get out of control, even for the invincible Bondurants.
The attention to detail in Lawless helps to elevate what is a pretty basic bootlegging story to another level. Throughout the film, little touches draw the audience’s attention away from violence and onto the characters themselves. In one scene, Rakes begins to eat, but as the camera cuts to Jack clipping an article about Banner, what seemed like Rakes’s crunching is actually the crinkle of scissors on paper. Elsewhere, as Jack courts preacher’s daughter Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), she sips on cherry soda, actually turning her lips and teeth red in a way that never seems to happen to actresses. In a sweet way in portrays how Bertha is set apart from the fashions and glamor of the time. Meanwhile, Jack matures into a man he hopes his brothers will be proud of, while still showing his boyishness in the way he demonstrates his success with possessions ripped out of Hollywood portrayals of gangsters. These fine details, along with stunning location shots and a modern bluegrass-inspired soundtrack create an earthy, personal ambiance for the story.
In many ways the script is built on cliches. It’s a tale of three brothers with dueling notions of masculinity. It focuses on the coming of age of the younger characters amidst violence and pressure from their families. The men are men of few words and the women are good enough to redeem them from their lives of crime. Still, the performances by the fantastic cast help emphasize the subtler elements of the plot. Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke are so stoic they could have been boring, but they also bring comedic timing to their performances in such a way that they invite the audience to chuckle at their chest-thumping and emotional constipation. In contrast, Mia Wasikowska is livelier than I’ve ever seen her. Beneath her very plain clothing and disciplined exterior, she shows so much charm, it’s understandable why Jack falls for Bertha, despite the odds against the relationship. In contrast, Jessica Chastain seemed like set decoration for the first half of the film, only to blow me away towards the end. She and Tom Hardy share a scene dealing with her reaction to violence that is so charged and complicated, I will be thinking about it for some time. Guy Pearce was the weakest link, in my opinion. As Rakes he made my skin crawl, yes, but the character seemed cartoonish next to the fine work by other actors.
Early on, Forrest has these great little lines that, to me, hinted at the whole theme of the movie: “It’s not the violence that sets men apart, it’s how far they will go.” And these boys go absurdly far. The movie is so violent, I gagged at one point, but Forrest’s insistence to Jack that violence is not the key to masculinity hung over each violent act. Then, the film has a lame epilogue that attempts to wrap the film up in a neat bow, but neglects the wisdom Forrest stumbles upon in his machismo. It was pretty cheesy and unsatisfying. Nonetheless, it failed to ruin what was otherwise a tense, thrilling, beautiful movie, which I rate 4/5 stars.
Lawless was written by Nick Cave based upon the novel by Matt Bondurant and directed by John Hillcoat. It runs 115 minutes and is rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity.
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