Is it ironic that a movie about Prohibition-era Virginia bootleggers would turn out to be so oppressively sober? Or is that in fact just a bad pun that I haven’t been able to shake out of my head since I watched Lawless? Anyway, upon further consideration, I’ve decided that Lawless is really pretty giddy and cheerful when compared with director John Hillcoat‘s previous two features, The Proposition and The Road. It’s every bit as violent (which, if you haven’t seen them, is really very truly quite violent indeed), but the harsh tone is softened a bit by humor, intentional and maybe not so intentional.
The film, naturally preceded by a tired, comically solemn “Based on a true story,” tells the tale of the Bondurant Brothers of Franklin County, Virginia, and their part in what came to be known as the Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy. Most of the focus is on Forrest (Tom Hardy), the taciturn eldest of the clan, and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), his gussied-up dolt of a younger brother. Out of nowhere comes Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a polished Chicagoan who makes her entrance talking up a storm about all the services she can provide to expand their clandestine enterprise. She exudes an assured business savvy, so it’s no surprise that they’d bring her on to be the brains behind all their schemes, and–oh wait, she just wanted to be the waitress? We also get a few glimpses of Chicago mobster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman, presumably interpreting his Tommy-gun-wielding role as the distant ancestor of Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg from The Fifth Element), who becomes an ally to the Bondurants then sadly fades out of the picture.
Then there’s Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), one of the more cartoonish villains I’ve seen in a movie this grave. Like Sean Penn‘s Mickey Cohen in the upcoming Gangster Squad, Pearce appears to have just walked off the set of Dick Tracy. Yes, we get it, Guy, your missing eyebrows make you look creepy. You don’t have to stroke them lovingly in the mirror to make us hate you. (Then again, maybe you do, since you’re only marginally less sympathetic than the heroes to begin with.) Between this and Prometheus, Pearce has had an unfortunate year in the makeup trailers.
Lawless plays around a little with the Goodfellas model, with LaBeouf boastfully relating a vague behind-the-scenes view of what it was to be a Virginia bootlegger in the early 1930’s. I do have to say it’s refreshing to see LaBeouf play a dimmer bulb this time around–he does the smart kid schtick well enough, but he wears vanity and cowardice quite well too. Some of the better scenes focus on his courtship of conservative preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). The two share an easy chemistry and lend a little bit of charm and comic relief to the glum proceedings. Hardy remains a reliable pleasure to watch, settling comfortably into a laconic Southern drawl.
The screenplay was co-written by Nick Cave, best known for his musical career. He also penned Hillcoat’s Proposition, which was a much smoother, if a little bleaker, piece. – [DVD]
DVD Release Date: 11/28/12