Sunday, September 02, 2012

Lawless / *** (R)

Jack Bondurant: Shia LaBeouf
Forrest Bondurant: Tom Hardy
Howard Bondurant: Jason Clarke
Maggie Beauford: Jessica Chastain
Charlie Rakes: Guy Pearce
Bertha Minnix: Mia Wasikowska
Cricket Pate: Dane DeHaan
Floyd Banner: Gary Oldman

The Weinstein Company presents a film directed by John Hillcoat. Written by Nick Cave. Based on the novel “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant. Running time: 115 min. Rated R (for strong bloody violence, language, and some sexuality/nudity).

People don’t tend to spend time thinking about thier own mortality. We go through life mostly embracing blissful ignorance about the many possibilities of our own deaths and how little control we have over the inevitable. Most of us will die in unspectacular ways, and that’s as it should be. But, there were times in our country’s past when death was less of a background that we didn’t bother to think about. There were times when spectacular deaths walked brazenly down the streets wearing designer suits and fedora hats wielding Tommy guns.

Normal people idolized these reaping gangsters because they gave death a purpose and railed against the corruption that ran rampant in law enforcement. “Lawless” is a movie made by two Australian filmmakers who, probably because of their own country’s even more recent history with the lawless nature of corruption in law enforcement, display a great understanding of the people who survived such periods of death in this country by living and believing their own legend of immortality.

The Bondurant brothers were real moonshiners during the Depression in Franklin County, Virginia.  They lived under their own legend of being invincible. Coming from a farming family, the three brothers survived their parents’ deaths to build a successful bootlegging business during the Prohibition. Rumors fuel their reputation with talk of one brother’s survival of various ailments and wounds, but soon the law moves into their backwoods community for a piece of the bootlegging pie. Deputy Charlie Rakes is a Chicago enforcer sent in to persuade all the moonshiners into giving up some profit in exchange for the law looking the other way and providing protection. Protection from what? Well, the law of course.

Forrest is the rock played by Tom Hardy (“The Dark Knight Rises”), who barely communicates beyond grunts. He is not interested in working for any man but himself. Howard (Jason Clarke, “Texas Killing Fields”) is mainly an enforcer who’s own alcohol consumption winds up landing Forrest in some trouble. The youngest is Jack, who wants to be a bigger part of the bootlegging operation, but Forrest feels he doesn’t have the strength for it. Shia LaBeouf of the “Tranformers” trilogy and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” plays Jack. LaBeouf showed promise as a young performer, but has experienced a backlash after a string of high profile big budget projects have left him basically playing a prop in their plots. He has said that he is done with big budget pictures, and if his performance here is any indication, this is the smartest career choice he’s made yet. This kid can act.

Forrest and Jack also enjoy two very different courtships during the events. Maggie (Jessica Chastain, “The Help”) is a former showgirl who has left the big city for a quieter life. She’s about the only thing that can shake the stone-like Forrest. Jack, however, follows his heart through his typical folly chasing a preacher’s daughter, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska, “Jane Eyre”). Bertha has spunk to match Jack’s, although their courtship is on shaky ground considering their divergent backgrounds.

Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave teamed up before on the feature film “The Proposition”, an unconventional western set in the Australian Outback. “Lawless” is a much more conventional story, although the mood they set and the casting goes a long way to separate it from similar tales. Their fellow countryman and the one actor who seems to be cast in all of Hillcoat’s projects, Guy Pearce, adds a particularly original creepiness to Deputy Rakes, who may very well be a dandy of sorts. But, any lifestyle choices he makes are out of perversity rather than anything genuine. The only thing genuine about Rakes is his evil.

“Lawless” won’t go down as a defining film for either Hillcoat or Cave, as their first collaboration is far superior. It is an example of solid filmmaking though. It tells a compelling story about one family that defined themselves in a time when there was great animosity in our country. There are some great performances to be found on this well-traveled road, and those make the movie worthy of our attention. The lives they portray are extraordinary in their willingness to believe in themselves, only realizing later in life that theirs were as ordinary in terms of mortality as anyone’s.

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