MOVIE REVIEW: Lawless

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LAWLESS-- 3 STARS

The more we are moving into the 21st century, the more we are putting the 20th century behind us.  The farther away that history gets, the more foreign and, on some levels, borderline barbaric it seems to become in hindsight.  In terms of film, seventy years ago after World War II in the days of John Wayne, our "greatest generation" was making Westerns of cowboys, Indians, horses, and six-shooters because, to them, the late 19th century was their borderline barbaric past of legend.  Here in the 21st century, that timeline has shifted.  The early 20th century, with the gansters of the Roaring 20's, Prohibition, and the Great Depression, might as well be this generation's time period of Western-like legend and the equivalent of a costume period piece in style.

The new film from director John Hillcoat, Lawless, operates in that early 20th century world that is relatively recent in the grand scheme of history books, but seems so distant in today's world of smartphones, souped-up cars, computers, television, and gun control laws.  For as much as we wondered with awe as children to the look and behavior of Western movie characters then, I'm betting the youth of today would get a kick out of the jalopies, fedoras, tailored suits, and Tommy guns of the 1920's and 30's.  Like Michael Mann's Public Enemies from a few years ago, Lawless should be taken and treated as a new form of the Western.  Like every good film of that genre, Lawless has its easily definable good guys, bad guys, and, most crucial of all, the morality play that plugs in emotion to a foreign and past barbaric time.

Lawless is based on Matt Bondurant's 2008 historical novel, The Wettest County in the World, about the true moonshine bootlegging exploits of his grandfather and two great-uncles during the 1930's in Franklin County, Virginia.  The story is led and narrated by the youngest of the brothers, Jack (Shia LeBouf).  He is the weakest of the bunch and treated as such.  The muscle, intimidation, and leadership comes from Forrest Bondurant, played by the hulking Tom Hardy, most recently seen in The Dark Knight Rises.  TV star Jason Clarke finishes the trio playing Howard Bondurant, the perpetually drunk brother who's a little too reliant and sampling of their product.  The three of them operate moonshining stills out in the woods and have bought out the loyalty of other neighboring bootleggers and the local law to keep their business going during Prohibition.

However, their business has gotten big and attracted city attention from Chicago, coming in three forms.  The first is a wayward former club dancer, Maggie (the stunning Jessica Chastain), who ends up working at their Bondurant lodge after hoping to get away from the violence of the city.  The second is renowned gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman, naturally) who sees opportunity to crack into this rural market by force.  The third is the diabolical Special Agent Charlie Rakes (a slithering Guy Pearce), a deputized lawman brought in by the state's attorney to end all illegal alcohol activities in the area.  Banner and Rakes pose as new and different threats to the Bondurant brothers and their livelihood.  As Forrest frequently professes (and also demonstrates), the Bondurants lay down for nobody, expect maybe for Maggie (if you know what I mean).

While that chess match of tough talk and long looks plays out, Jack longs to be taken more seriously by his brothers and wants a bigger cut of the business than the tables scraps he feels he gets.  Jack works with his local buddy genius Cricket (Dane DeHaan of Chronicle) to create larger and more hidden new moonshine stills.  His new product volume enables him to broker a deal with Floyd Banner himself, making some big money and proving his worth.  He's also a little sweet on the unattainable local German Baptist preacher's daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska from Alice in Wonderland).

The one force that won't go away is Rakes.  Brutal in his methods and creepy in his intimidation, Guy Pearce plays the best villain so far this year at the movies.  He starts to tighten the screws and turn the law against the Bondurants and their supporters.  Eventually, like a good Western promises, a few clashes and a big showdown or two are bound to occur.

Written by recording artist and Renaissance man of many talents Nick Cave, Lawless works as an effective 20th century version of a Western.  He and director John Hillcoat know their way around the genre having previously collaborated in Australia with Guy Pearce on the under-seen and very good Western The Proposition.  Like that film, Lawless doesn't shy away one bit from the brutality of its era.  The blood level is high and the violence earns its R-rating.  With Nick Cave's poetic writing and hand in the musical score with Warren Ellis, the movie isn't short on style either.  With Georgia stepping in to play rural Virginia, the dirt and green of the deep forests and the dust and grime of the roads and homes are striking contrasts to the sprays of red and the sharp period fashion.

From a plot and and performance standpoint, the flaws begin to show through.  Without a doubt, Tom Hardy is mesmerizing to watch and commands every single moment he's on screen.  He is screen presence personified and worth the price of admission (especially free of mask of Bane from The Dark Knight Rises).  

The biggest flaw is Shia LeBouf.  He's a natural at playing a wuss, but he's just an awful pairing to put him with Hardy.  Like Justin Long last year in the Civil War-era The Conspirator from Robert Redford or Keanu Reeves back in the day in Dangerous Liaisons, Shia, thanks to the Transformers series, is one of those actors that is completely modern and can't be taken seriously in a period or costume piece.  He just doesn't fit at all and is, unfortunately, the lead of the movie.  We're stuck following him around wooing Wasikowska when we would much rather see Hardy and more Jessica Chastain as well.

The veterans assert themselves well.  Gary Oldman is definitely underused.  It's a shame that he's just a background character, but Guy Pearce is right there with Tom Hardy for presence.  Like I declared earlier, he creates easily the best villain so far this year.  His talent can keep up with Hardy and his frequent threats coil with tension.  With LeBouf weakening the trio of protagonists, it's Pearce that saves the movie by giving us something to really root against.  I'm comfortable labeling him a dark horse for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination to earn the right to lose to Philip Seymour Hoffman from The Master (who has seemed to have locked up the award before the movie has even been released).  Overall, Lawless is on par with Public Enemies and is a worthy choice for those looking for a Western-like tale and a gangster film with a more rural and gritty country setting.  For those modern folks out there, think of it as a prequel to FX's Justified.  

LESSON #1: IT'S NOT THE VIOLENCE THAT SETS MEN APART, IT'S THE DISTANCE THEY ARE WILLING TO GO-- With a country drawl drowning out his King's English, this is Tom Hardy's winning nugget of a quote from the film and a good lesson.  He's right.  Any fool can kill or act tough in the moment or when pressed, but the real measure is the resolve and follow-through to match that ability to be violent.  As much as most Westerns are morality plays, the Bondurants demonstrate an immortality because the violent way of life that they have grown accustomed to living.

LESSON #2: WHEN A MOVIE CHARACTER SAYS SOMETHING LIKE "WHEN HAVE I EVER LET YOU DOWN?" THEY ARE ABOUT TO LET YOU DOWN IN THE WORST WAY-- Like the red shirts on Star Trek or the "I'll go check it out" idiots who leave the safety of a group of a scary movie, there are certain movie cliches that always seem to come true.  This cliche line and its result make the list as another one.

LESSON #3: BEING TOUGH ENOUGH FOR THE CAREER PATH YOU CHOOSE-- Every job or profession has a built-in level of stress and a required level of toughness.  Not everyone is big enough to be a bouncer or firefighter, patient enough to be a stay-at-home mother or a teacher, or crooked enough to be a lawyer or politician.  This goes back to the resolve of Lesson #1.  To do the job you want, say a criminal bootlegger, you have to have the toughness for it to be effective.