Wednesday, September 12, 2012

LAWLESS (2012)

Written by Nick Cave

Directed by John Hillcoat

Where & When: Vista Theater, Los Angeles, CA. September 2, 2012  4:15PM

I'm sure it's hard to imagine but there was a time, not so long ago, where it was actually illegal to sell alcohol in the United States. The ban went in to effect in 1920 and for thirteen long years before the repeal, America was supposed to remain bone dry but this certainly didn't stop people from getting their hands on booze. This spurred the creation of an underground industry of homemade liquor that was run and largely distributed by the mob.

"Lawless", based on the actual events covered in the novel, "The Wettest County In The World", a film about the Bondurant brothers, a trio of small-time bootleggers from Franklin County in Virginia who uses a diner as their front.  The brooding, Forrest (Tom Hardy) is the brains of the family operation who uses his words economically as his grunts clearly expresses exactly what he means. Wild-eyed and unpredictable, Howard (Jason Clarke) will gladly handle any opportunity that requires brute force. Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the youngest who is probably much too sensitive for this line of work but determined to show that he can handle any of the dangers that come their way.

The country was in the middle of the depression as these simple, backwoods men discretely provide booze to the local area to help make some sort of decent living. The law enforcement, who receive liquor in exchange, turned a blind eye to the transactions. The tranquility is soon disrupted, first by the arrival of a mobster (Gary Oldman) out of Chicago who makes his presence felt by gunning down a rival in the middle of the town in broad daylight. Jack witnesses the murder, impressed and wishing he could be as bold and fearless.

Maggie (Jessica Chastain) a striking redhead clearly not from this part of town, enters the Bondurant bar looking for work and seemingly wanting to distance herself from her past. Forrest hires the mysterious lady as a waitress although the reason appears to be less about her skills as a server.

Finally, Special Agent Rakes (Guy Pierce) has been sent by the District Attorney to collect a cut from all of the bootleggers in the county but Forrest firmly refuses. Although Rakes arrives scented and looking quite the dandy, the man is sadistic, psychotic and more than ready to kill anyone who stands in his way of the completion of his assignment. A battle rages as much blood is spilled and the body count rises until a final showdown between the Bondurants and the agent reaches a deadly climax.

The Australians, director, Hillcoat and Nick Cave, who briefly put aside his day job as a rock musician to write this impressive screenplay, helped the film greatly by not feeling any strong obligation to go down any predictable road that is closely associated with this very American gangster genre. There is plenty of graphic, brutal violence to be found which is to be expected but what is unexpected is the amount of emotion which is not usually found with this type of film. The personal relationships and romantic encounters feel authentic and, at times, actually quite touching. "Lawless" is visually stunning thanks to the work of  cinematographer, Benoit Delhomme as he provides a rich and dusty palette as well as the picture perfect details of the costumes and production design by Margot Wilson and Chris Kennedy respectively.

A strong cast has been brought together including Mia Wasikowska as the daughter of a preacher that Jack is attracted to but highly improbable that her father would ever approve. His childish antics off-screen has warranted more attention than any of his previous work in any of the Hollywood blockbusters he has made but as the conflicted John, Mr. LaBeouf takes on a more mature part and does a fine job to show that he is capable of much more than what he has shown to date.  The British actor, Tom Hardy continues to impress in his varied roles in film with his most recent appearance as Bane in the final film of the Batman saga, "The Dark Knight Rises" as the actor was able to portray such intimating menace despite most of his face being covered by a mask. In "Lawless", Mr. Hardy has his whole, handsome face to work with as the prickly, indestructible brother as he quietly commands each moment he's on screen while Ms Chastain, another impressive rising star, also provides a poignant performance in her supporting role.

It appears that all of the right elements were in place and yet as the closing credits began to roll, it still felt that "Lawless" seemed to have just missed the mark of  being considered completely satisfying. Although this engaging work was inspired by the adventures of the real-life brothers, most of the events in "Lawless" plays too much like an overdone urban legend than anything close to an actual re-enactment of their colorful lives. However, despite this minor shortfall, this highly entertaining film should not be missed.