He Called Me a Nance
“You’re a peach.” The camera tilts up at Federal Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) as he stands over Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf), whom he means to beat to a bloody pulp. Charlie dons gloves for the occasion, while Jack looks up from the ground, already kicked and smacked so brutally that he can’t stand. Rakes, in turn, looks down, his face pale, his lip curled, and his eyebrows… missing.
It’s a particular look, sinister and prissy, of a piece with his precisely parted and slicked down hair, his three piece suits, and his shined shoes. Rakes has just arrived in Franklin County, Virginia, where Jack and his brothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke), run a profitable bootlegging business. Rakes is “from Chicago,” and though you don’t know anything about his life before now, the designation carries weight in 1931: he’s a Prohibition enforcer, called in because he’s good at what he does.
Rakes is the villain in Lawless and Jack the amiable, rather juvenile narrator. Directed by John Hillcoat and adapted by Nick Cave from Matt Bondurant’s historical novel The Wettest County in the World, the film follows Jack’s efforts to update the mechanics of the business, to work with rather than against big-time gangster organizations like the one run by Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), and also to romance the local preacher’s daughter, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). With so many narrative balls in the air, Jack’s frequently unfocused, his story a bit herky-jerky, and his perspective limited.
This last explains—or produces—the film’s unevenness and triteness, for instance, Rakes’ fussy affect, as he veers from not-very-repressed homosexual (leering at Jack) to omni-predator. His nastiness is incessant, his every moment on screen offering another angle on his abject appetites and venal energies: his use of female is revealed in a post-moment, as he rearranges his hair in a mirror, but his predilection for violence against pretty boys is underlined, with long minutes devoted to his assaults on young Jack and Jack’s crippled friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan), showcasing his vehemence, his violence, his curly-lipped distaste at the resulting untidiness, as well as the umbrage he takes at being called a “nance.”
Rakes monstrosity makes Jack and his brothers seem respectable citizens by comparison, even if they do operate outside the law. Reportedly beloved by the community (you don’t see much community here, but that’s what Jack suggests), the Bondurants are survivors, apparently, of everything. Howard made it through World War I, coming home predictably shell-shocked and especially adept at breaking men’s bodies, such that he serves as the muscle to Forrest’s brains. Forrest’s backstory is rather more epic. He’s unkillable, a point the film showcases in a couple of sensational resurrections, one exceptionally bloody, the other evoking memories of Jason Voorhees.
But as tough as the brothers may be when it comes to protecting their business interests (and, of course, the family), their essential decency is marked by their sexuality, that is, their interest in nice girls. Howard’s redemption by marriage occurs offscreen, but Jack’s courting of Bertha takes up all kinds of time, as he follows her to her daddy’s church (where he quite swoons when she undertakes to wash his feet) or the feed store, or entices her to go driving with him in the brand new car he’s purchased with his illegal money.
While their nonsense might be attributed to Jack’s poor narrating skills or maybe the couple’s immaturity, Maggie (Jessica Chastain), the former feather-dancer who takes a job as the brothers’ barkeep and bookkeeper, would seem to be more complicated, until she’s not. Arriving as if out of nowhere—she’s actually from Chicago, and Rakes’ memories of her performances make for still more meanness no his part—she applies for the job and takes notice of Forrest in one motion. But even as their romance is so foreordained, it’s more a device than anything else. Maggie might be the woman (a woman) who helps to frame or even frame Forrest’s dense personal mythology, his seeming brilliance at exacting revenge and his inscrutable inner life, but she’s not. Instead, she’s the superficial reason you’re supposed to like Forrest, much as Rakes’ ambiguous sexuality is the reason to root against him.
Such simple oppositions make it sound as if Lawless makes an emotional or even basic plot sense, but it doesn’t. While Jack’s storytelling focuses on the violence and some consequences of bootlegging, on the lawmen’s lawlessness and the brothers’ awesome bonds, it can’t stop peeking around at the sex, whether this is staged as Maggie’s virtuous desire or Rakes’ fiendish impulse. He’s a nance, and the film makes sure you despise him for it.