Movie Review: Lawless

Jason Clarke (standing), Tom Hardy (left), Shia LaBeouf (right)

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

What with the name Lawless … in truth, there ought to be a law. A law against any more Depression-era bootleg movies that don’t have enough lightning in their white lightning to make us want to watch one more twangy tale ’bout them grubby backwoods Blue Ridge Mountain boys firin’ up their guns along with their stills. Between their fightin’ and feudin’ with the local competition and the sheriff, and having to deal with threats to life and limb leveled by those fancy city gangsters rolling into town with speeches slicker than their hair, these dirt poor hillbillies just might want to be left alone for a spell. At least until someone comes up with something new to say.

It’s not that we’re so besotted with Jimmy Cagney’s Public Enemy of 1931 through Johnny Depp’s Public Enemies of 2009 – with a whole lot of Untouchable Ladies in Red, Bonnies and Clydes in between – that we can’t take one more dip into that tired old well. But the story’s got to have more kick than some two-bit swill that even Ma Barker’s Ma wouldn’t swallow.

Which leads us to director John Hillcoat’s and screenwriter Nick Cave’s latest collaboration of Lawless, based on the Matt Bondurant novel “The Wettest County in the World.” Originally a loosely fictive account of Bondurant’s own grandfather Jack and his two grand-uncles Forrest and Howard, the film opens up in Franklin County, Virginia in 1920. A quaking young Jack can’t shoot a pig; his two older brothers, looking on in disgust, do it for him. Foreshadow alert.

We zoom to 1931, meeting the adult versions of the siblings. Older brother Howard (Jason Clarke) has come home from the Great War, accompanied by a raging violent psychosis that he picked up as a souvenir along the way. Middle brother Forrest (Tom Hardy) survived the Spanish flu that wiped out the boys’ parents. As the Bondurants’ leader, he’s the Harry Potter of Appalachia, frequently reminding folk that he and his kin are magically invincible. And baby bro Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is still squeamish around guns. He may dress to kill … but he can’t actually do it.

Tom Hardy as Forrest, Jessica Chastain as Maggie in "Lawless"

The most puzzling character is Jessica Chastain’s Maggie, polished and manicured to a fare-thee-well, hoping to find employment at the boys’ bar-and-grill Blackwater Station. She claims that she’s looking to find some peace far away from the depravity of Chicago. Um … in the wilds of southern Virginia, where every last native is doing his unwashed desperado best to stay afloat in bathtub gin? Where no one considers saying “please,” before accosting an attractive woman? Hadn’t the lovely Maggie thought about, say, moving to Paris? Or to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s New York? Surely, she must have a secret agenda to want to settle down in a place like this … mustn’t she?

Stating it as succinctly as her new friends might: Naw.

As an encore to their previous 2005 venture (the well-received Australian outlaw film The Proposition), Hillcoat and Cave struggle with a slim story that doesn’t quite compel. The Bondurants want to make their liquor in peace, but since they refuse to pay hush money to sleazy Special Deputy Rakes (Guy Pearce), he’ll do whatever it takes to stop them. Except he doesn’t, which weakens the plot’s credibility.

However, Lawless isn’t without some redemption. His weak screenplay aside, Nick Cave collaborated with Warren Ellis on a richly flavored bluegrass soundtrack, a unique mix of blues, gospel and Townes Van Zandt (with vocal contributions from Emmylou Harris). And the production values that deliver the grime and dust of Depression-Era country-boy gangsterism versus well-oiled city-folk sensibilities are pitch perfect.

Yet for a clan that’s supposed to be extraordinary, we don’t see much, um, proof. LaBeouf plays it annoyingly chipper, Clarke is OK but Hardy, calling to mind a giant gruff bear with a sore throat, is nearly unintelligible — as if he’s still speaking through villainous Bane’s face mask from The Dark Knight Rises. Speaking of comic book evildoers, Guy Pearce steals the show as the wicked dandy Rakes. Nearly unrecognizable (calling to mind a blend of Dick Tracy baddies, including Flattop), Pearce’s face contorts in the most astonishing of ways. Though far from a subtle performance, Pearce sinks his teeth into the character with such relish that, ironically, it’s Rakes — rather than the bathtub bourbon Bondurants – who delivers the spirit.

Lawless is not so much O Brother, Where Art Thou? as “O Brother, Why Art Thou?” The Bondurants’ journey is utterly predictable; when their enemies try to shake them down, they stand resolute. When the brothers are pummeled in one scene, they pummel back in the next. Up and back, up and back … it’s like Wimbledon for moonshiners.

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Rating on a scale of 5 mountain dew-nots: 2.5

Release date: August 29, 2012
Directed by: John Hillcoat
Screenplay by: Nick Cave
Based on the novel “The Wettest County in the World” by: Matt Bondurant
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Dane DeHaan and Guy Pearce
Rating: R
Running Time: 115 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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