Friday, September 7, 2012


Tom Hardy as Forrest Bondurant

Lawless is an entertaining but uneven adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World, which was inspired by the author’s grandfather. Part gangster flick, part Southern gothic, and part Western, the story follows the three Bondurant brothers in Prohibition era Virginia. They are reputed for their survival skills and good moonshine. Local authorities don’t care. The oldest two brothers don’t think twice about beating aggressors with bare fists or brass knuckles. The youngest is eager but more of a lover than a fighter.

Occasionally, a gangster might stray into town to commit murder or a gang might try to rob the brothers. Otherwise, all goes smoothly until a lawman from Chicago swoops in and wants a cut. Denied this, he wages war against all bootleggers in the county, including the intrepid Bondurants.
Jason Clarke as Howard Bondurant

The atmospheric beginning captures the hard boiled life of our heroes in all its browns, from beards and clothes to ramshackle buildings. The detailed depiction is both accurate and the archetype of a mountain town in the early twentieth century: expect strong accents and tobacco spit (and blatant WHITES ONLY and COLORED signs, in case you forgot people were racist then). The evocative soundtrack is gorgeous if occasionally heavy handed. Landscapes are equally memorable, from a smoky mountainside to a kudzu covered wonderland.

This film takes its time in introducing its enjoyable characters before it veers off course. The acting is excellent. A surprisingly funny Tom Hardy plays Forrest Bondurant, the occasionally tender hearted but tough as nails ringleader. Jason Clarke does well with less as the haunted, constantly drunk Howard Bondurant. Shia LaBeouf is effective as Jack, the baby. Ambitious and foolish, the endearing Jack tries to swagger, but he generally reacts to violence the way most of us would—with pure terror.
The Bondurant brothers.

Jessica Chastain has little to do but look concerned and lovely like many women in Westerns, but Mia Wasikowska has a little more meat as the unattainable preacher’s daughter who catches Jack’s eye. She enjoys flirting with the love-struck, unsuitable Bondurant boy; her sly coquetry is highly believable. Dane DeHaan plays Jack’s sweet, innovative friend, and their relationship is predictable but convincing in its innocence.

Gary Oldman has a small role as a notorious gangster, and Guy Pearce plays Special Agent Charlie Rakes. Pearce is amusing but not exactly subtle. For example, when introduced, he walks up to the first woman he sees and leers at her for several minutes. He openly laughs in the faces of these “hicks,” as he calls them.  (The audience gasped whenever he unexpectedly appeared and cheered when he sustained injuries.)
Guy Pearce as Charlie Rakes

As disturbing as Rakes can be, his villainy is somewhat diminished since the protagonists are as brutal as he is. Rakes may abuse innocents while the Bondurants torture murderers, but it’s difficult to get behind characters who mutilate people. The villain’s crimes are portrayed as sadistic and traumatic, while the main characters’ violence is often shown to be grim but funny and deserved.

The violence itself is extremely graphic but not always serious. The Bondurants are rumored to be “indestructible,” so don’t be surprised if characters recover remarkably quickly from life-threatening wounds. The theme of immortality is successfully played for laughs, but it could have been a statement about the Bondurants’ reckless youth and egomania.
Shia LaBeouf and Mia Wasikowska

An amalgamation of genres gives the film a unique feel, and a few surprises await viewers. But the story also contains numerous clichés that don’t serve the plot. One fears for the safety of a good natured but physically disabled character, and several women are raped because… they are women? At least one of the sexual assaults is shown off screen but does nothing to forward the plot or the victim’s arch. The act is hardly addressed, but then again, little of the violence here is.

The movie’s tone is simultaneously too lighthearted and too dark. Grisly though it is, Lawless is still a fun and well-acted film. It’s unfortunate that the movie doesn’t reach its promised intensity, reducing what could have been a rousing legend into a diverting yarn.
Shia LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant

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