Thursday, 10 December 2015

Movie Review: Lawless (2012)


A prohibition-era action drama based on real events, Lawless mixes violence with family bonds and local skirmishes for control of the illicit alcohol trade. As three brothers from rural Virginia face off against big city criminals, there are plenty of predicable elements but also some snazzy moments of excitement.

It's 1931, and brothers Forrest, Howard and Jack Bondurant (Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke and Shia LaBeouf) are among the more successful families independently manufacturing and distributing alcohol in rural Franklin County, Virginia. Forrest is the brains, Howard the muscle, and the youngest Jack is the driver, considered by Forrest to be not-yet-ready for the serious business of intimidation and deal-making. The brothers operate under a mythology of invincibility, partially justified by Forrest's war-time adventures. The local sheriffs are friendly and kept under control with a regular supply of booze.

Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a dancer escaping from the chaos of Chicago, offers her waitressing services to the Bondurants and initiates an across-the-room relationship with Forrest. Meanwhile, Jack starts to romantically pursue Bertha (Mia Wasikowaska), the local reverend's daughter. With plenty of money to be made in the illegal alcohol trade, the big-time gangsters move into the Bondurant's turf. Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is sent in to do the dirty work of bringing the ragtag moonshiners under the control of Chicago mobsters. Forrest is the only producer who resists, leading to increasing levels of violence as Rakes tightens the noose of intimidation and Forrest lashes back.

Lawless is based on true events as described in the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, Jack's grandson. Director John Hillcoat aims for a Bonnie And Clyde type vibe, with the Bondurants as 1930s outlaws to cheer for because they are likable rogues and everyone else is as bad or even more corrupt. To a certain extent the film succeeds as a romp on the backroads of the moonshine industry, with some wild but at least somewhat true episodes of throat slitting, broad daylight street gun battles, and ingeniously hidden distilleries pumping out unfathomable amounts of alcohol.

Fun as the adventures are, the film is also lacking in the necessary charm. Forrest is the closest Hillcoat comes to finding a compelling character, with Tom Hardy delivering an entertainingly gruff and mumble-filled performance. But about half way through the film his presence is sidelined for a long stretch, and the narrative momentum suffers.

The story is predominantly told through Jack's eyes, the least interesting of the brothers, and his moments of growth and development are both few and jarring when they happen. Jack's rather prolonged pursuit of Bertha fails to ignite.  Also disappointing is an underdeveloped role for Jessica Chastain as Maggie. She gets one good scene of proactive yet sensitive seduction, but otherwise settles firmly into the background.

What the protagonists may lack in flair, Special Deputy Charlie Rakes more than makes up for in over-the-top despicable smarm. Guy Pearce does not hold back in creating an easy-to-hate villain, from the ridiculous hair to the city slicker clothes and sniffy condescending attitude. The clash between Forrest and Rakes is a spicy collision between idealized rural honesty and exaggerated urbanite arrogance. Also adding some edge is Gary Oldman, who makes a couple of relatively brief but effective appearances as Floyd Banner, another well-financed gangster muscling in on the alcohol business.

The backdrops are provided by Benoît Delhomme's cinematography, and he creates a landscape only marginally disturbed by human settlement. Mountainous rural Virginia of the 1930s is a bleak, gray place, a comfortable home for the locals but relatively foreboding to outsiders, a perfect base from which an illegal industry can thrive.

Lawless achieves and maintains a middling level of engagement. Much like the moonshine itself, the quality varies by the batch but the underlying buzz is always there.






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