A moderately crafted assemblage of violent rural American stereotypes. Falls far short of the high bar set by “The Proposition.”
Director John Hillcoat regroups with screenwriter Nick Cave and redrafts Matt Bondurant’s novel about a tough hewn family of rough and ready moonshiners in the fabled hills of America’s Virginia. The time is prohibition, the Roaring Twenties, and the shotguns of the Bondurants roar as far away as Chicago, that toddlin’ town, where the big city boys are trying to muscle in on the Bondurant’s’ tradition family industry, moonshine.
As the film correctly points out, moonshine is the distilled spirits of a fermented mash that can be made out of anything from wheat to corn to soybeans to tree bark. It looks like witches brew, smells like tear gas and when you swallow it (eh, pardon me, “swaller it”) it feels like a combination of your first orgasm and your first car wreck. You lose your cares, your weakness, you r common sense and the lower half of your digestive tract at the same time.
This is a big part of what kept America going throughout the years when liquor was outlawed in America and organized crime was born. There was big money to be made and, apparently, the Bondurant’s were in on the ground floor.
It was dangerous business and it is big help if the head of your gang is somebody who survived The Great War even though the entire rest of his platoon was wiped out. In fact, in this film, one of the family having his throat cut “from ear to ear” as his lover Maggie (Jessica Chastain) puts it. Shown graphically in the movie, that is pretty much what it looks like.
In any event, he survives that and thereafter sports the most magnificent set of stiches, like something you saw on Frankenstein fifty years ago.
Younger brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) fails early on in his first test of manhood when he cannot bring himself to kill a pig in a pen with a rifle. Luckily, one of the tougher brothers is there to do the task. This sort of misguided folklore pervades the film and turns what might be a blockbuster in foreign market into a joke on American soil.
Killing a pig is not a test of manhood in rural America. It is a way of getting meat on the table. However, one thing you can be sure of is that when a Southerner point a gun at something and fires at it, he (or she) will hit it.
Therein lays the weakness in “Lawless.” It purports to blast out the same gut-wrenching violence as the masterpieces of the genre, Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” or Walter Hill’s “The Long Riders,” but what we get is bunch of aimless shooting.
The director and screenwriter (and perhaps the author of the novel) would do well to remember that when a man opens up with a shotgun on a group of baddies from twenty yards away, somebody is going to go down. In this film, the only person who seems capable of actually shooting anybody is mister uber-baddie himself Special Agent Charlie Rakes (played to the hilt by Guy Pierce).
Guy Pierce is good, he is so good the audience wants to kill him from the first scene. The problem is that his character goes nowhere. In the place and at the time the film is set, a man like Rakes would have been killed and buried in the hills after his first day in town. He would not have spent days and weeks bashing callow youths like Cricket (Dane DeHaan) in the face with his shotgun while the locals milled around in angry confusion.
Lucky for us, because Cricket bears a striking resemblance to C.W. Moss (paled by Michael J. Pollard) in “Bonnie and Clyde.” In fact, brother Jack, Cricket and frisky preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) make a sort of Bonnie and Clyde look-alike group, with Wasikowska channeling Sissy Spacek from “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
Unfortunately, all of these references come across as pathetic rather than inspirational. They are all just grabs in the dark for some kind of American myth of the rural self-righteous that this film tries to foist on the viewing audience.
Round out the cast with Gary Oldman playing Floyd Banner in a combination of Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd and Crickett’s mother (uncredited) who is a shoe-in for the James Gang’s mom who is accidentally burned to death by the revenuers in “Long Riders,” and you have a semi-authentic plasticized and sterilized version of just about every American folk hero in history except Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan.
Let us hope Hillcoat and Cave do not move on to the Alamo.
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Directed by: John Hillcoat
Written by: Nick Cave (screenplay), Matt Bondurant (novel)
Starring Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Guy Pearce
Release Date: August 29, 2012
MPAA: Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity
Run Time: 115 minutes