Throwback: 2012 Film Review, Lawless

Renegades, Regulations, and Rotgut

Where is the line drawn between the law and the lost? In the Prohibition-era south, you’d probably find it somewhere near Franklin County, Virginia. In John Hillcoat’s latest work, based on Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest County in The World, the true story of the infamous Bondurant brothers is told- gangsters, guns, and all.

Three bootlegging siblings, played by Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, and Shia LaBeouf run a lively and thriving moonshine business, and even the local authorities can’t help but dish up some of the black market firewater. It doesn’t hurt that the brothers’ esteem around town is only heightened by the back-fence talk of their inability to die (which generates some of the most humorous scenes in the film). In Franklin County, it’s a clearly paved kingdom with the entrance to the castle at the Bondurants’ feet. Nothing good can stay, however, and their sovereign way of life is put to the test at the arrival of the brutally animalistic man of law, Rakes (Guy Pearce). Straight out of the flourishing crime scene in Chicago, Rakes isn’t afraid of playing dirty, as proved during a gruesome tarring and feathering punishment quite akin to the Boston Tea Party days.

When the Bondurants are the only ones left to refuse to kneel before his authority, it’s hard to tell who takes the hardest hits, but it’s clear that the once simple and easy black and white town becomes one pulsating with areas of gray. Add in a casual cool mobster from the windy city, Gary Oldman’s much-too-seldom-seen Floyd Banner, and a resplendent, genteel Jessica Chastain as an exotic dancer implanted from Chicago (Why is everyone from Chicago?) and you’ve got enough simmering intensity to burn away the moonshine everyone’s fighting over.

The backbone of this storyline revolves around the people in it, and the performances given for them were, for the most part, carefully matched. There’s LaBeouf, who instead of reporting the aftermath of a gangster shoot out, proceeds to pick up two of the submachine shells, dust still fresh in the air from the barrage of Floyd Banner, and runs away looking like he just won the lottery and saved the President all in the same day. LaBeouf is quite familiar with the role of the restless, disparaged younger brother from his faraway Even Stevens days, but is perhaps too familiar. Taking up nearly the entire two hour screen time gets old fast, and the idealistic Jack is stuck living in the shadows of his braver, more menacing brothers, both from his side of the screen and from ours.

Then comes Howard, the eternally drunk and frighteningly capricious middle Bondurant, who can be best summed up by his swift destruction of the town deputies outside of the brothers’ haven. Whereas Hardy’s strength lies in his stoic stillness, Jason Clarke snaps the reigns in half, coursing through his scenes with jolts of veracity and a “Yippee Ki-yay” liveliness that Uncle Sam would be proud of if he weren’t so busy trying to shut down their business. Speaking of the authorities, one can’t forget to mention Pearce, or rather, won’t forget, as he’s the kind of villain bad dreams are made of. Having worked with both Hillcoat and Nick Cave on The Possession, you would think Pearce would have the upper-hand in the casting department, but there’s a lot to be desired. Although it can’t be denied that Rakes is a single-minded, vicious little Special Deputy, that’s about all he is. Once you get past the callous way he does literally everything (he even makes eating a cookie look cruel), all that’s left is a whiny prima donna who holds a nasty grudge and a nastier haircut.

In the end, it is Tom Hardy who carries this film, which shouldn’t really be a surprise as he basically kicks ass in every role he plays. His portrayal of the oldest Bondurant is magnetic and grossly underrated. Hardy creates a character full of silent power, lethal wisdom, and distinctly charming beastly grunts, only bested by his brass-bound loyalty to the few people he loves and his resolve to keep his family’s honor in tact. The quiet chemistry between himself and Chastain is undeniable- by the time she finally arrives naked in his doorframe you’re about as fed up with waiting as she is.

Yes, there is no way of dodging Hillcoat’s unrestrained knife-throwing style; it’s Fight Club meets Butch Cassidy and he makes sure we know it. Yes, the storyline is at times longwinded and the voiceovers become an unnecessary attempt at creating a sentimental recollection of facts. And yes, there’s blood and violence and too many animal metaphors (How many animals must we see fight each other to understand the “men are animals” symbolism?)  But in between all that we find Nick Cave’s lyrical dialogue, a nostalgic, ground-down soundtrack and a naked simplicity in Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography that is more reminiscent of poetry than of brawl.

There’s an eerie power in one of the final moments of the film, with the silhouettes of the staggering Jack Bondurant stalking towards a defeated Charlie Rakes in the very same bridge that those moonshine jalopies drove through for so long, and the absence of their faces in the darkness makes the imminent retribution all the more clear.

That’s the crux of the whole story, really. Heroism is not something that can be looked straight in the face. It’s hidden in the shadows, with some people seeing the silhouettes of the law, and others seeing the silhouettes of the lawless. What Hillcoat gives to his audiences is not a story of bloodshed and rebellion in 1931; Lawless is a story of the common folk and the justice they deserve, and can’t we all resonate with that?