Lawless (review)

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Lawless green light Tom Hardy Shia LaBeouf

I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast; love the era; love John Hillcote’s somewhat similarly themed The Proposition

I’m “biast” (con): I’m a little weary of cops-and-robbers, wondered whether this might feel same-old

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

If this wasn’t based on a true story, you’d scoff. Forrest Bondurant, Depression-era entrepreneur, is legendary in rural Virginia, rumored to be invincible because he survived a Great War military attack that killed all his fellow soldiers, and then came home to recover from the Spanish flu that wiped out more people than the War did. This reputation now serves him well in his chosen field of work in Franklin County in the early 1930s, which features violent conflict and constant danger. Because what he does is make and sell alcohol. Which is illegal.

Crazy, right? There was a time in American history — not that long ago! — when making, selling, buying, and consuming alcohol was against the law. Insanity! Which is kinda how Australian director John Hillcote (The Road, The Proposition), working from a script by Australian screenwriter Nick Cave (yes, that Nick Cave, the musician), seems to see it, for he turns a withering yet always hugely engaging eye on the realities of this preposterous scenario, one that rings with unspoken critical parallels with today’s “war on drugs.” (It’s all based on the novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] , which fictionalizes the real-life exploits of the author’s own family.) It’s an outsider’s look at a unique moment in American history, a gigantic social experiment that failed utterly, distilled — heh — through the tale of one family walking the very different lines between right and wrong, lawful and prohibited.

For here we have honest crooks and corrupt cops. Forrest is the brains and the brawn of the Bondurant moonshine operation, a careful man of measured action and few words. And he refuses to be cowed by the new “special deputy” in town: Charlie Rakes is not interested in shutting down the Bondurants, as his standing as a defender of the law should require; instead, he wants a piece of their very lucrative business. (The local cops have been happy merely to be able buy some of Forrest’s superior product.) Forrest is a man of principle: he will not be extorted. Rakes is a man of greed and wickedness: he will not be thwarted. Both men will defend their positions with extreme violence. This is not “law and order” — it’s cockfighting, and no one can wholly win in the end.

There is explosive, bloody, brutal action here, in sporadic bursts, but this is not an action flick, and anyone expecting The Expendables: Prohibition will be disappointed. This is a novel of a film, magnificently observed moments of human nature placed within a complex thematic tapestry that neither overexplains itself nor overenunciates. In the grand scheme, Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises, This Means War) as Forrest is glorious, making tiny gestures and pensive grunts enormously expressive; and Guy Pearce (Prometheus, The King’s Speech) is superb as Rakes, cadaverous in body and spirit, oozing a prissy perversity. Hillcote doesn’t overplay the contrast in expectations that these men represent — Forrest is supposedly the uncouth, uncivilized hillbilly, Rakes the sophisticated, genteel urban man — but lets the contrary truth of their natures speak for themselves. Hillcote is a master of crafting devastating observations in the briefest of moments, as when he offers us the look of crushed defeat on the face of one of Rakes’ casual sexual conquests. We don’t need to know what he did to her to appreciate how terrible it must have been; our imagination does the work, and bypasses the path of titillating luridness that another filmmaker might have taken in creating such a scene. Lawless is, all around, an outstanding example of how to make a film that involves the abuse of women without appearing to approve of the same: not by ignoring it or pretending it doesn’t happen by but making it, as much as possible within the context of the story, about how the women cope with it, or don’t, and by giving them the agency to absorb it and turn it around. As we see in Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain: The Help, The Tree of Life), a woman looking to escape big-city life and the low status she had acquired there in a new town where no one knows her. One of Hillcote’s particular lovely moments is an early interaction between Maggie and Forrest, hinting at their attraction, when she moves his hat, which he has impolitely left on the table while he eats — this is at the diner the Bondurants own that is the front for their operation, and where Maggie now works as a waitress — off the table, as is proper manners, and he obstinately moves it back once she’s turned away. It’s the equivalent of brushing a bit of imaginary fluff off the shoulder of someone one is drawn to, half gentle scolding and half gentle grooming… but what makes the moment perfect is that Forrest’s dimbulb brother Howard (Jason Clarke: Trust, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) witnesses this, perplexedly, realizing that he’s just seen something important but not quite sure what it is.

Oh, the brothers! In Forrest’s war with Rakes, they will be a problem. Howard is less than wise, and ambitious Jack (Shia LaBeouf: Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) is less than circumspect. Forrest is not a man who goes looking for trouble, even when defending himself and his interests, but his brothers are not so cautious…

I love this movie. It is grimly luscious in a way that some of my favorite sorts of movies are: not backing away from the darkest aspects of humanity but using outrageous examples of just how howlingly shortsighted we can be to point out how stupid we all can be, all the time. I’ve barely even touched on everything there is to plumb about this stunning film — there’s a whole subplot about crazy religious people, for one. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Lawless is how very modern it feels, 80 years beyond its setting: this isn’t a historical story, but one with real relevance for today. Trying to ban things that generally good people have done since there have been people — that is, indulging in mind- and consciousness-altering substances — and that don’t really hurt anyone else might be the most pointless idea ever. The ridiculousness of Forrest and Rakes’ battle continues today. For why?

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