The Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) ride to Oscars continues with The Weinstein Company’s prohibition era moonshine film Lawless. It’s a small, beautifully low-lit film that takes place in the hills of Franklin County, Virginia (shot in rural Georgia) about brothers making a profitable living selling white lightening and the city slicker gangsters wishing to muscle their way into the business. With a cast that includes Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain and Gary Oldman, and helmed by The Proposition (2005) director John Hillcoat, you can imagine there are proper gangster film fans drooling to see this. But the best part is that its winning script is written by goth-alt rocker Nick Cave, his second big film after The Proposition, adapting Lawless from the true story novel The Wettest County in the World by FSU alum Matt Bondurant.
The Story: Three bootlegging brothers, Frank, Howard and Forrest—a combination of characters similar to those in films like Next of Kin (1989), Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), and Bonnie and Clyde (1968)—are brewing bathtub gin in the mountains when the slick suited, machine gun toting gangsters of the bigger cities try to move in on their territory. Defending their small family business against corrupt politicians and cops proves to be pretty tough, especially when their lives are on the line. But the real story is the youngest brother Jack’s coming-of-age in the shadows of his bigger, more fearless brothers Forrest and Howard.
The Goods: At times the look of Lawless is comparable to the “one-light” cinematography of John Sayles’ Matewan (1987), and it’s very reminiscent of Conrad Hall’s photography in Road to Perdition (2002); both films also taking place around the time of The Depression. The setting here is ripe for what in the end seems more like a campfire story of rural legends who persevered harsh weather and even harsher men to make a living during such harsh times in America. You can see inklings of The American Dream and historical metaphors in that if you wish, or just kick back and enjoy “Goodfellas in the woods,” as Shia LaBeouf calls it.
You can also get a sense of the comic book superhero influence on moviemaking that oozes from Hulk-like punches that big brother Forrest’s mighty fists elude to (a symptom of Hollywood’s run-off onto the independent scene, I’m not complaining). Forrest is an honest business man, that is, when he’s not grunting like Sling Blade’s Karl Childers. When you hear that you know Forrest’s mind is starting to turn. But Hardy’s making of this character is more than just a sketch of brute force; he gives the Bondurant brothers respect and credibility in this business by being honest, forthright and clear as the sordid water in their mason jars and does so in a tip of his hat or a cool, steady look into the eyes of those that pose a threat to his family. Swift and direct is his character’s subtext when dealing with men folk, but completely opposite around the pretty Maggie played by Chastain.
Guy Pearce takes on an interesting look, as if Bob Geldof from Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982) stepped off the screen to play the antagonist Charlie Rakes. With shaved eyebrows and an obsessive compulsive behavior toward cleanliness, the very violent Rakes provides just enough creepiness to make the risk of bootlegging behind his back a suspenseful and anxiety ridden series of conflicts that every heroic character should have.
The Flaws: I saw at times a familiarity to films of the past that conjured up probably more images from Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde than I wanted it to. Including a montage of the family’s spurts of success while being pursued by “the law.” And the soundtrack seeps into the film somewhat too distractingly. Though the music is fitting at times it sounds a little too contemporary, nearly hinting at what was attempted in A Knight’s Tale (2001), mixing modern pop songs with centuries-old settings. Such as Lou Reed’s White Light/White Heat as sung by bluegrass stud Ralph Stanley. Granted it fits perfectly in a bootlegger movie that takes place in the hills but it’s a little too close to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? than I want it to be. I actually really like the song played over images here, but again, it took me out of the film, made me start thinking of other films, of MTV, or Nick Cave’s presence on the film’s soundtrack, etc.
The Call: The Weinstein Company gets their hands on something that is several degrees less than the art fare they normally dish up and they surprise us with a little gun fun at the movies. This one’s more of a popcorn genre film with pop stylings that nearly makes the river locals of Deliverance (1972) a bunch of guys I’d like to hang with. More importantly, in Lawless we find the Marlon Brando of today’s generation. And his name is Tom Hardy.
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity. Running time is 1 hour 55 minutes. Here’s an article on Nick Cave talking about his passion for music and the re-energizing escape that screenwriting gives him: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/29/nick-cave-lawless-lessons_n_1838979.html?utm_hp_ref=entertainment
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