Release: Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Happy Labor Day! I had no idea I’d even be seeing this movie until an hour before it screened near me. I had non-concrete plans to go see some Boomsday fireworks (this is how Knoxville, TN does it!!!) but the weather didn’t look great, so out I went to Wynsong 16. Here’s what I have to say about this adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s factual novel, ‘The Wettest County in the World.’
Written by Nick Cave and Matt Bondurant, the film Lawless may not be flawless, but it is a justifiably intense and violent spectacle directed by John Hillcoat and filmed beautifully in backwoods Virginia — Franklin County, to be more precise.
It tells the story of the three fiercesome Bondurant boys, all living outside the law as moonshine bootleggers during Prohibition-era America. When one particular out-of-towner starts meddling in the small town’s illegal business it thrusts older brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) into the middle of a bloody farce that leaves more dead and wounded than saved.
For me there were a number of elements that worked, but a few major items detracted from Lawless‘ ambition to become another truly great American history drama.
To focus on the film’s grittier side, the bloodshed and tears seem incongruous with LeBeouf’s still Disney-like performance. Somehow, that Even Stevens boyishness will never quite be shed, and its awkward in a character intended to experience (read: serious) growing pains here. As the youngest of the Bondurants, he manages to sell the whole “scrap of the litter” thing pretty well when he gets his ass whooped by that one nasty Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). And that’s only because this glimpse of great acting is based out of primal fear of dying via brass knuckles and a shotgun barrel.
But three-quarters of Hillcoat’s recruits are perfect pawns in this battle between standing on principal and conforming to national law. Hardy’s Forrest has this quirky little groan he mutters when something doesn’t sit right with him. It’s a simple character trait that goes miles. He’s the big guy, the macho man with few words but more restraint than his siblings. In some ways he is the town, a voice over local authority. That is, until Rakes arrives from Chicago, wanting a cut of the brothers’ moonshine profits.
As the movie goes on the violence escalates, including some grisly throat slashings, tar-and-featherings, and an implied rape scene. It starts to stack up to something rather sickening; that is, until we see Shia again, then everything is once again fun and games. Sort of.
Well, that and the comforting feeling you get when after seeing these horrific scenes you just know the Bondurants will respond, or rather, retaliate with all the bloodshed forthcoming as justified as it could ever be.
However, the biggest blunder was having Shia read the prologue and epilogue that accompanies; it all seems way too easy and contrived for a movie reaching for historical accuracy and (presumably) an Oscar. Perhaps that would have worked better had one of his elders been describing the state of the Union at the time, but they don’t and we have to take Jack’s inexperience as an experience.
Apart from the undercast Jack Bondurant, we do get a healthy dose of great acting from the other guys, most memorable of all being Pearce’s menacing Charlie Rakes. Gary Oldman weaves a minimal, yet effective performance throughout as the merciless killer, Floyd Banner. Jessica Chastain is wonderfully sublime as a relocated Chicago club dancer seeking solace from city life. Understated as only Tom Hardy can, “this town ain’t the quiet place you were expecting.”
Recommendation: Go in to this movie expecting gore. Lots. It’s not the traditional popcorn flick, but maybe you’ll find the occasional scene where eating might be tolerable. All-in-all, a damn good thrill ride.
Running Time: 115 mins.
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