Monday, September 24, 2012


Lawless (2012)
Dir. John Hillcoat
Written: Nick Motherfucking Cave
Starring Shia LeBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, and Gary Oldman.

I don’t usually write about movies which are still in the theaters, since I feel like the hundreds of thousands of trained monkeys who already write about them around that internet I keep hearing about have that subject pretty well covered. But every once in awhile a film comes along that changes you in a profound way. That teaches you to look at the world differently, to experience more deeply, to love more richly. OK this isn’t that film, but it’s a damn fine one which is about 10 times better than it’s rap and what the hell, they haven’t made a new PUMPKINHEAD sequel in awhile so I figured I’d use my valuable time to tell you that you’ve really got to see this one. It’s awesome.

And of course, you have every reason to think it would be. John Hillcoat already has made two films which are available to you, those being THE PROPOSITION (2005) and THE ROAD (2010) and those both being one of the best films of their respective years. And screenwriter and composer Nick Cave has done many things cinematic and otherwise, all of those being the best ever regardless of year. This is the guy who wrote that famous rejected script for GLADIATOR 2 where Maximus is reincarnated by Roman gods to defend people throughout history. This is a guy who has played with Shane MacGowan, fucked PJ Harvey, covered Leonard Cohen, inspired praise by Wim Wenders, starred alongside Brad Pitt, written two novels, and authored an introduction to the fucking bible. How could anything he touches not turn to badass gold? Plus you got Tom Hardy, who has been doing amazingly ballsy work on everything from BRONSON to his shirtless Sean-Connery-plays-Darth-Vader turn in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Plus Guy Pearce, who would have top-tier badass credentials from THE PROPOSITION alone, even if you didn’t know about MEMENTO and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and so on. And Gary Oldman, who has notably played Sid Vicious, Dracula, Lee Harvey Oswald, Pontius Pilate and Jean Baptiste Emanuel Zorg.  That all totals up to a pretty good badass pedigree, from a purely scientific standpoint.

So I’m thinking maybe it’s that pedigree that causes it problems. Because that’s the only possible explanation I can think of for reviews like, “The center of narrative gravity is hard to locate; for whom are we rooting, and does anything really ripple outward from this nasty local fight?*” or “An inescapable sense of "so what?" sets in early with "Lawless,"** or most patronizingly, “Mr. Hardy mostly grunts, growls and ribbits, occasionally interrupting his angry bullfrog impersonation to deliver down-home bromides that make him sound like Toby Keith choking on a Cheeto.”***

It’s hard to fathom how otherwise generally sane critics could react to a film this good with that level of vitriol. In fact, only that nutball Richard Roeper seems to have gotten what the movie was going for. His review: “Bad-ass from start to finish.”

Seriously, this is one fucking badass movie. And really, that’s all there is to it. It’s a bad-ass movie made by a bunch of badasses at or near the top of their game, committing most of their formidable badass resources to making something really God Damn kick-you-in-the-gut-burn-down-your-village-defile-your-women badass. 

Still doesn't forgive TRANSFORMERS.

But for some reason, everyone wanted something different from this movie, so many critics turned to my least favorite trend in film criticism, which is criticizing a movie that doesn’t exist. They all list different specific deficiencies, but this movie that exists isn’t the one they wanted. What exactly is should have been no one can agree on, but definitely it should have been something different. They want more drama, or more scenes in the city, or more from the women, more real history, or most infuriating, more point to all the bloodshed. Everyone seems to be of the impression that because it’s an extremely violent film, it must have some noble objective to enlighten us and teach us a valuable lesson about humanity. No you jackasses, it’s just damn entertaining. Does DOG DAY AFTERNOON really have a big philosophical point to it? Does THE WILD BUNCH reach some big epiphany about our place in the world? Shit, does THE GODFATHER really have so much to teach us about the nature of evil in man? No god damn it, they’re just phenomenally made badass stories which are told by great storytellers. Now, this isn’t quite that caliber of filmmaking, but it’s in the ballpark. It’s an enormously gripping, meticulously constructed period gangster film, and that’s all it ever needed to be. It’s like when X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE came out and everyone said it was horrible because there were no aliens in it. How bout actually giving the film that does exist a chance, rather than whining that it’s not the film you personally imagined?

So, having gotten that out of the way, how about the actual film, bud? Is it any good?

Sure it’s good. Let me count the ways.

What we got here is a pretty simple period gangster story based on real history and then augmented in ways which make it more enjoyable. Hardy, LeBeouf and Clarke play three brothers in prohibition-era Appalachian Franklin County, Virginia. They, like seemingly everyone else in the county (dubbed “the wettest county in the world,” also the title of the book it was based on) are ignoring prohibition completely and making a tidy profit through their expertise in moonshining. As the money piles up, a corrupt D.A. and his sadistic enforcer Deputy Rakes (Guy Pearce) move in to try and take the business for themselves, only to find that the three brothers in question don’t take kindly to being pushed around. Most of the movie consists of the ever-escalating battle between these two groups, and the ways in which the illegal alcohol trade pushes the brothers to grow (in particular youngest brother Jack, played by LeBeouf).

What are we supposed to learn from all this? Well, there might be some feasible parallels to the war on drugs, as we watch organized crime wrack bitter years of violence on this once-peaceful community. There might also be a hint of the Afghan war, with the US represented by smug, condescending outsider Rakes thinking that he can use force to change the culture of this isolated and proud region in his favor. There may even be something to take from it about the seductive nature of violence, and the way our own mythologizing about it can lead us places we can’t back away from. 

moonshine has many uses around the home.

But really, it’s just a tense, terrifically acted story of attack and reprisal, with a little period color thrown in for texture (which may well be one of those mixed metaphors you always hear about). And as such, it’s a pretty wild success. All three brothers are spectacularly good, but special praise should be reserved for Hardy as the monsyllablistic, supposedly indestructible eldest brother Forrest. He can express so much with a mere grunt that we may seriously have to take Billy Bob Thornton’s SLING BLADE crown and award it to Hardy for best non-language performance in American history (although Chewbacca still probably remains king of this category). Hardy draws Forrest as a truly unique creation -- more man of action than thinker, but perhaps not as simple as he might first appear. He’s the leader of the brothers, with an aura of quiet authority and an understated sense of both purpose and unassailable power. But he’s also a long way from infallible, as a series of miscalculations and surprises makes clear. It’s an understated performance of an oversized character, and it makes for one of the most memorable screen badasses in recent years.

But that’s Tom Hardy, you expect him to be great. But were you expecting a great performance from Shia LeBeouf as well? Well happy Rosh Hashanah kid, you got one. LeBeouf’s Jack is the heart of the movie, and his transformation from sensitive kid to merciless killer is the chief narrative thread that links the concatenation of bloodshed. It’s a really great performance because of how subtle the character shift is -- there’s not a single moment of transition, but rather a gradual slide which is never explicitly address but always mutedly apparent. Less subtle but equally successful is Guy Pearce, fearlessly taking his loathsome antagonist to heights of hateability rarely explored by less adventurous actors.

There’s a long and storied cinematic history to hateable villains intended to stoke our bloodlust, but you gotta respect someone playing a classic song with this level of perfection. Creating a truly detestable villain and transferring audience hatred into genuine cinematic catharsis is not as easy a thing to do as it might seem -- it takes careful, well-executed filmmaking of a story which is all broad strokes. Hillcoat pulls it off with such verve that it seems almost hilariously simple -- just like any well-orchestrated magic trick. In fact, I think part of the reason this film was so easy to write off is that it’s such a well-oiled machine that it never seems to be working very hard. It’s easy to miss the stunning dexterity Hillcoat shows in navigating between humor, moments of awkward humanity, hauntingly poetic visuals, and shocking bloody violence because it all feels so natural. In a lot of ways, I think LAWLESS got punished for not showing off enough. It has fantastic performances but no high-drama Oscar Clip scenes. Visual poetry to spare but only in service of the story. Sharp, well-staged action sequences but no over-the-top showstopper setpieces. A top-notch soundtrack but few scenes that overtly call attention to it. It’s interested in working as a whole, rather than showcasing how good its parts are -- which makes for a really great movie but not one which seems ostentatiously impressive.

Scars and stripes forever

Thinking about that also kind of explains everything about the lukewarm reception this thing got. Like poor EUREKA, it’s a movie they started to make as kind of a weird arty historical hybrid film, but then someone got the idea that the cast and the premise might actually make them some money. So suddenly, the name gets changed from the admittedly terrible “The Wettest County” to the completely generic “Lawless.” Horrible posters get struck up to emphasize the stars and play down everything unique and interesting about it. They do a series of character posters as if we’re going to fall in love with each character separately and demand a lucrative LAWLESS franchise with its related marketing tie-ins, product monetization, and cheapie spinoffs. They demand a running time of under two hours, add some narration to make sure no one gets lost, make sure everything has a nicely wrapped-up happy ending. None of this ruins the movie, but it’s all designed to try and lure an audience of normal people who will just find it off-putting and weird. Meanwhile, the highbrow film snobs look at the chintzy poster, the needless narration, the slightly shallower shorter cut, write withering reviews, and prevent a more adventurous audience from checking it out in the first place. And hence a perfectly excellent film with a great cast manages to alienate it’s entire audience and disappear from theaters without anyone who would actually like it ever having taken a look at it.*****

That having been said, there are a few problems here. For one, this cut does have a whiff of being trimmed down beyond what was good for it. A number of elements it introduces seem oddly truncated, most notably story threads relating to the strict German Baptist community that lives alongside our more sinful heroes and most story threads having to do with the city mobsters lead by Gary Oldman (who end up with a total of maybe four minor scenes). Neither feels exactly extraneous, but they both scream of themes which were intended to be further developed and subsequently feel noticeably unfished. Both female characters are simultaneously well-acted and underdeveloped, but you’re used to that. More troublingly, there’s a very occasional narration by LeBeouf which painfully over-explains things that are already obvious from watching. Both Hillcoat and Cave are smart enough to show us rather than tell us -- they know that this kind of storytelling shortcut is both alienating and unnecessary, and so I’m assuming it was a concession to the studio and a way to shave minutes off the runtime. But they should have put their foot down against it, because it’s about as necessary and seamless as Harrison Ford’s narration in the theatrical cut of BLADE RUNNER. I suspect there’s a longer cut out there somewhere which manages to achieve the classic status that this cut is slightly too flawed to reach, which makes it a bit frustrating.

Who thought this would make people want to go see it? It looks like a Seagal DTV flick with a festival win.

Beyond that, there’s that [LIGHT SPOILER] troublesome and unnecessary happy ending which probably sums things up a little too neatly. The happy ending, amazingly, is true to history - maybe they felt like they had to include it, but it’s the only part of the film which comes across as labored and awkward. It feels like the end of AMERICAN GRAFFITI or HARRY POTTER PART 7 PART 2 where they unnecessarily lay out a bunch of stuff that happened to the characters after the story reaches its logical conclusion, undermining the finality of that closure and presenting nothing of particular relevance anyway. What, we need to know that everyone got married? If so, all we need is a final establishing shot of the clan all together to gather all the information we need. Having LeBeouf explain who married who, what jobs they got, what tax bracket they ended up with, where they’re insured, where they buy their gingham and so on belabors what should have been a simple, quiet grace note of an ending. [END LIGHT SPOILER]

Still, none of these things is enough to really hurt the LAWLESS experience. Even if its flaws keep it from the greatness that could have been, its still pretty damn great on its own terms. There’s a rootsy cover of the Velvet Underground’ “White Light/White Heat.” A series of tooth-shattering brass-knuckle beatdowns. Guy Pearce with hair so greasy it looks like it was painted onto his head. Why get bogged down in what might have been when what we got here is a genuinely fine little gangster movie, completely unique and filled with great touches? If it’s not quite CASINO, it’s at least THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY. You can complain about it if you want, or you follow the example that Tom Hardy sets here: man up, drink some moonshine, and know when to shut up and have a good time. 

*Anthony Lane, New Yorker

**Ann Hornaday, the Washington Post

***A.O. Scott, New York Times****

**** What, you thought I didn’t know how to use actual footnotes? 

*****By the way, what kind of world do we live in where Roger Ebert gives LAWLESS and THE MASTER two-and-a-half-stars while POSSESSION and END OF WATCH get 3-and-a-half?

1 comment:

  1. Your review has piqued my interest further, but even before reading, I really wanted to see this movie because a) Virginia b) moonshining and c) the author of the book is also an alum of Dan's & my alma mater, and we shared several writing professors. I have also personally drunk Virginia-made moonshine, though admittedly in a less historically and personally badass context, but nevertheless, I feel like that forges some degree of personal connection to the history depicted here. I mean, not to the degree that the grandson of Shia LaBeouf's character who wrote the book has. But a little bit. I'm also just generally intrigued by this movie's potential to actually make me find Shia LaBeouf cool.