[31 August 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s a problem for all period pieces: getting the details just right without drowning in such specifics. You have to make sure the language isn’t too modern, that your cast can pass the “Hark!” test (meaning, do they look appropriate saying such slightly surreal jargon), and do you have era-exacting elements throughout (no 1928 images in 1898, or visa versa). There are a few filmmakers who get things more than right. The Coens can claim an exacting nature so specific that you actually feel you’re lost in their aesthetic time travel. Martin Scorsese is also successful in making sure exactitude doesn’t distract from his desire to entertain. And then there’s John Hillcoat…and Lawless. Based around real life bootleggers the Bondurant Boys, this Prohibition era crime drama demands attention for how accurate and authentic it is. It also deserves dismissal for how dull and derivative it is.
We learn that the three Bondurant boys - oldest, and supposedly indestructible Forrest (Thomas Hardy), constantly corn liquored up Howard (Jason Clarke) and young upstart Jack (Shia LaBeouf) - run one of the most successful moonshine outfits in all of Virginia. The locals admire them, the cops ignore them, and many a Chicago mobster relies on them for a never-ending supply of bathtub booze. Even when a fancy pants government agent (Guy Pearce) steps in, declaring his desire to clean things up, the Bondurant boys pay him no mind. Once he starts strong arming the competition, however, the men make a stand. In the meantime, Jack wants to break out from his brother’s dominance. He makes a deal with visiting gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). He also starts wooing a minister’s daughter (Mia Wasikowski). Forrest, on the other hand, finds his hands - and bed - full with a city gal named Maggie (Jessica Chastain).
If the Devil is in the details, Lawless is Satan himself. This is a movie where every ragged and rusty soda sign, where every piece of aged lumber on the Bondurant’s business or shred of clothing on their muscled backs, looks like it was pulled from a titanic time machine. No snowflake is out of place, no spatter of blood spread too large or too small. Instead, director Hillcoat micromanages his vision down to individual items. A bruise becomes a significant subtext, an axe-carved part a sure sign of character complexity. If it weren’t for the gunplay and violence inserted in between the tableaus, we’d have a coffee table book on life in the Appalachians circa 1922. Such fastidiousness is not without its charms. From the inferred sense of desperation to the obvious references to far off speakeasy sleaze, we have a film so wrapped up in its epoch that it can barely breathe. The results render almost every bit of costume and art design meaningless.
That’s because Lawless really has nothing new to offer. It’s a movie where the various plot beats are spelled out long before they happen. Rocker turned screenwriter Nick Cave (who worked with Hillcoat on the far better revisionist western The Proposition), in adapting the book The Wettest County in the World, turns each Bondurant into an archetype waiting to confirm itself. Forrest is supposedly indestructible. We get at least five challenges to same. Howard’s incessant drinking is destined to doom his brothers and the business. Check. Jack, seen early on as unable to do something as simple as slaughter a pig for supper, should grow up to be equally weak-willed and whiny…and he does. Even worse, his desire to outdo his brothers in the bootlegging game leads to a mid-movie character arc that becomes annoying before it becomes obvious. We also know that, when the chips are down, Jack will finally find the impetus to pick up a weapon and shoot.
As for the rest of the cast, they are ancillary. Both female characters are underwritten, and for the most part, unnecessary. Had they not been featured, one imagines a line of criticism complaining about the lack of gender equality (and possible homoerotic context) in the production. Similarly, Oldman appears to explain to the rest of the modern actors how a real period performance is created. Chronicle star Dane DeHaan excels as a crippled companion named Cricket who carries the entire story’s sentimentality and schmaltz on his malformed legs (and you just know he’s meant for a tragic end) while Pearce is obviously a proponent of playing to the cheap seats. He chews so much scenery, albeit subtlety, that one can’t help but feel we are watching someone’s work from another film.
Indeed, Lawless is listless. It’s a one note dirge being played over and over and over again to listeners who can’t tell the difference. When the action ramps up, it’s as exciting as when Hardy manhandles Chastain’s naked form. A death threat is as exhilarating as an order for more ‘shine. There’s no spark, no real electricity. Character set up circumstances and then they play out. No pizzazz. No flash. No vision. Hillcoat clearly believes his look will carry the day, and if you are into early 20th century hillbilly, he’s got your cinematic chic. There’s is no denying that the film has an intriguing visual style…there’s just nothing there to keep you invested. You never care about Jack’s journey, Forrest’s “family” devotion, or Pearce’s Puritanical campaign. It’s all boils down to details, and the details don’t deliver, not in a cinematic sense.
Lawless is reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies in that it knows the timeline, but not the temperament. The locals treat the Bondurant’s like mythology. The movie has them merely going through the motions. Perhaps this was all that Cave and Hillcoat has to work with. Maybe The Wettest County in the World wasn’t overflowing with dramatic stare-downs and old fashioned jalopy chases. Perhaps this is the best the “based on a true story” statement has to offer. Sure, the period looks perfect. Too bad the rest of Lawless is so flawed.