Reviews

'Lawless': A Family with a Moonshine Bloodline

This story is, in many ways, a classic American tale: a Mom-and-Pop operation fights enterprising Big City interlopers. By honing in on one such family business, we get a Western-gangster film hybrid that is tough, tender and telling -- and set to one helluva soundtrack.


Lawless

Director: John Hillcoat
Cast: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman
Distributor: Starz/Anchor Bay
Rated: R
Release date: 2012-11-27

The Wettest County in the World

Publisher: Scribner (reprint)
Author: Matt Bondurant
Publication date: 2009-12
Amazon

Sometimes foreigners can better limn the contours of another nation’s historical actions. In Lawless (newly released on Blu-ray/DVD), Australian director John Hillcoat and Australian screenwriter-musician-novelist -- oh, hell -- Renaissance man Nick Cave take on an infamously key part of American history: 1930s bootlegging.

Based on the true-story novel The Wettest County In the World, by Matt Bondurant, grandson in a family with a moonshine bloodline, Lawless follows the Bondurant brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), as they struggle to retain their bootlegging business against the pressures of crooked cops and Chicago gangsters.

The story is, in many ways, a classic American tale: a Mom-and-Pop operation fights enterprising Big City interlopers. By honing in on one such family business, Hillcoat and Cave conjure a Western-gangster film hybrid that is tough, tender and telling.

The Bondurant’s run a fairly successful, but primarily local, bootlegging business in Franklin County, Virginia. When youngest brother Jack attempts to prove himself by expanding the business out into greater urban pastures, the brothers are led into a large-scale blood-feud that they or may not be up to.

Just as his character, oldest brother Forrest, dominates the Bondurant family, actor Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises, 2012) presides over the film with an effortless power. A laconic mumbler with a vicious right-hook (assisted by brass knuckles), Forrest Bondurant is considered “indestructible” by the locals. After getting his throat gashed open, his already low-decibel voice becomes a kind of lethal whisper in which every word emits menace.

Apparently, the real-life Forrest was just as durable and formidable, surviving bullets and beatings with pioneer-resilience, eventually succumbing only to biology -- he was killed by pneumonia. In the film, when Forrest tells Jack, “It’s not the violence that sets [a man] apart, it is the distance he is prepared to go,” one senses immediately that Hardy’s Forrest is one man who is prepared to go all the way.

As brother Jack, Shia LaBeouf gets to sink his teeth into a role that is far meatier than his characters in Transformers (2007, 2011) or Disturbia (2007). Though Jack is the youngest brother, he has the highest aspirations -- or lowest, depending on where one stands, as this exchange makes explicit:

“You’re an outlaw, Jack.”

“It’s just a matter of perspective.”

Though meant to encapsulate and compress narrative points and exposition, the voice-over narration by LeBeouf’s Jack seems too intermittent and ultimately unnecessary, as Hillcoat’s visuals and Nick Cave’s dialogue resonate enough without it:

“You hand me that cash or I’m gonna cut some daylight into you.”

“You fucking hicks are a sideshow unto yourselves.”

“This ain’t Chicago.”

Hillcoat, who has previously directed Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic The Road (2009), the violent, impressionistic Western The Proposition (2005) and a truly odd prison-exposé-like film Ghosts Of The Civil Dead (1988), has a great eye for dirt, grit, spit and blood. He also has a great ear: the sound design on his films, Lawless included, is richly detailed, especially in the gunplay, with bullets tinging off metal or absorbed with proper oomph by soft materials such as human flesh.

Others in the film include Guy Pearce as corrupt lawman Charley Rakes, a perfumed but deadly dandy with shaved eyebrows and a razor-sharp haircut split down his skull. When Rakes captures Jack’s sidekick-with-rickets Cricket (an impressive Dane DeHaan), one’s stomach sinks: innocence meets ghastliness for what can only be an ignoble end.

Gary Oldman plays a kind of Chicago Gangster synecdoche named Floyd Banner, a too-small but still reverberant role. Cleary young Jack admires Banner, who threatens to supplant Forrest’s paternal authority. I kept waiting for a showdown between the two father-figures Forrest and Banner, or the two ruthless near-allegorical villains, Rakes and Banner (and thus the three powerhouse actors, Hardy, Pearce and Oldman), but unfortunately it never materialized.

There are also two touching romances, one between LaBeouf’s Jack and a Mennonite girl played by Mia Wasikowska, and another between Hardy’s Forrest and Jessica Chastain’s Maggie, a Chicago callgirl transplanted to the Virginia hills, of whom Pearce’s character says, “I ain’t the kind to drink from a greasy cup.” Initially Forrest resists Maggie’s charms with an ascetic resolve, lest his malevolent energy and “strength of character” soften or dissipate. When Maggie finally appears naked in his bedroom, Forrest’s initiative and clarity of purpose are, for the first and only time, stammered.

There are some extremely violent, er, touches: Forrest’s throat split wide open; a man getting his testicles lopped-off and delivered in a paper bag; and another tarred and feathered until he resembles a molting vulture.

The film’s music, also by Cave and his longtime collaborator Warren Ellis, is ingeniously anachronistic: for example, a montage of the Bondurant’s burgeoning booze biz is set to a bluegrass version of the Velvet Underground’s amphetamine anthem “White Light/White Heat”, a song that also ends the film in a brilliant take by legendary country singer Ralph Stanley. And there are some highly atmospheric numbers by Emmylou Harris, whose reedy voice slips between one’s ribs, straight to the heart.

Special features include a commentary by director Hillcoat and author Matt Bondurant; a redundant selection of deleted scenes; short documentaries on the film and the historical Bondurant family; and a Willie Nelson music video.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image