Monday, September 3, 2012

'Lawless' (2012) directed by John Hillcoat, 2nd September 2012

'Lawless' tells the story of prohibition era moonshiners the Bondurant brothers.  The screenplay by Nick Cave is an adaptation of the book 'The Wettest County in the World', which is written by the grandson of our central characters, Matt Bondurant.  The director, John Hillcoat has a good track record, his last films being 'The Road' (2009) and 'The Proposition' (2005), both of which I enjoyed very much.  

John Hillcoat and Nick Cave share a 'blood n' guts' aesthetic, and their partnership on 'The Proposition' paid off magnificently.  Both of them seem to take a grim pleasure in realistic violence and men 'doing what they've got to do'.  So, it's not exactly a surprise that this film is packed full of men gritting their teeth and murdering each other graphically.  Our protagonist is Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the youngest Bondurant brother and "the runt of the litter".  His brothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) run a successful moonshining operation in Franklin County, Virginia.  Opposing the brothers is Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a corrupt and intimidating lawman enraged by defiance from what he sees as a bunch of 'hicks'.  In supporting roles we get big time gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), barmaid Maggie (Jessica Chastain) and Jack's sweetheart Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). 

All of the men in this film are violent, territorial and sadistic.  The only thing that separates our 'heroes' from the villains is that the villains are comically evil.  In both of the director's previous films we see environments that will chew you up and spit you out if you're not willing to sacrifice your humanity in exchange for survival.  The three brothers seem to be at various points along this process, Tom Hardy's Forrest being almost Terminator-like in his invincibility, while Jack begins as a weak and put upon wimp, and begins to transform himself into what the film paints as the masculine ideal.

The Bondurant brothers.
This masculine ideal, as told by 'Lawless' and in Nick Cave and John Hillcoat's wider work is, admittedly entertaining to watch on screen, but after nearly two hours of men either grunting terse dialogue at each other or cutting each other apart it gets a bit much.  We're encouraged to see the Bondurant brothers as loveable rogues even as they torture their rivals to death.  

In the opening scenes LaBeouf's Jack is unsure of himself, reluctant to resort to violence and seemingly quite sensitive.  By the time we're through he's a raging, materialistic killing machine.  This transformation is a classic gangster film narrative device, running right through the classics of the genre (all three 'Godfathers', 'Goodfellas', 'Scarface' et al).  Where these films succeed is that while we can take a certain sick pleasure in watching our protagonists bloodily claw their way up the ladder to the top, we also see the toll it takes on their family, friends and mind.  Traditionally, by the end of a gangster film like this we should clearly see the toll on the central character, and we realise that family, friends and loyalty are more important than glitzy material wealth.  That's because, for all the gleeful violence and voyeuristic hedonism, the gangster genre is at heart a morality tale.  This is where 'Lawless' falls apart.  As Jack learns the ropes, he begins to swan around in fancy suits, owning expensive cars and generally getting a bit full of himself.  So far, so gangster normal,  butthe film never condemns this materialism.  The cool cars and clothes are apparently steps on the path to a happy life.  This all-pervading amorality gets a bit depressing after a while, and even though our protagonists are being played by charismatic and likeable actors, it's hard to shake the conviction that they're unsympathetic monsters.

It's telling that they have to construct a fairly ridiculous and obviously evil villain so that we've got someone to side with the brothers against.  In a mostly realistic and unglamorous world Guy Pearce's Agent Rakes stands out as a cartoon character.  He's played with the same kind of eccentric evil as Dick Dastardly.  If Agent Rakes had a moustache in this film, he'd be twirling it at every opportunity.  I'll say this for Guy Pearce, he looks like he's having a ton of fun here.  He manages to disgust and creep out everyone he interacts with, even those supposed to be allied with him.  This visceral hate effectively translates through the screen into the audience, and I was amused to hear people gasping in shock when he turns up on screen.  He's tremendously fun to watch, although the way in which Hillcoat distinguishes him from the central brothers is a little questionable.  While the brothers are uncomplicated masculine men, Agent Rakes is neat, perfumed and fussy.  He's described to his annoyance as a 'nance'.  I guess this character is part of a long tradition of the effeminate metrosexual psycho, but even so it does quite clearly delineate what the film paints as the 'correct' gender roles'.

Guy Pearce as Special Agent Graves
Women don't fit well into the masculine world the film constructs, and both Jessica Chastain's Maggie and Mia Wasikowska's Bertha are pretty much one-dimensional character sketches.  Maggie in particular seems to exist mainly to get abused by other men, thus giving the brothers a reason to inflict grisly revenge upon them.  It's all a bit problematic and although Chastain stands out as particularly beautiful amongst all this dirt and carnage she is more of a dramatic device than a developed character. Wasikowska's Bertha does get a little more development, although this is restricted to her growing affection for LaBeouf's Jack.  As Jack becomes more violent and materialistic, the more she likes him.  Again, this seems to show us a very narrow definition of a 'correct' masculinity'.

For all that, there is much in this film to enjoy.  Tom Hardy can express more emotion with the back of his head than most actors can with their whole body.  He's the magnetic centre of every scene he's in, and things become electric every time he's on screen.  His total confidence and invincibility complex are hugely entertaining to watch, especially as he throws himself into seemingly suicidal situations.  He's so fun to watch that you can't help wishing he was our protagonist rather than LaBeouf.  Gary Oldman is in the film surprisingly briefly, although in his few scenes he manages to convincingly portray a combination of ruthlessness and power, especially in a great action scene when, cigar clamped in mouth, he empties a tommy-gun into a moving car.  It's an iconic gangster image, and Oldman totally sells it.

A moment of kindness with Mia Wasikowska's Bertha 
Hillcoat's direction is sure-footed and confident.  The film is shot digitally, recalling the visual tone of Michael Mann's 'Public Enemies' (2009).  Shooting digitally seems to somehow make things more relevant and modern.  It sounds like cliche to say that it brings the past to life, but it definitely has a different feel to traditional film.  The desaturated tones make the blood seem more immediate.  I've got a pretty strong disposition when it comes to gore in films, but some of the violence in this film turned my stomach.  Again, this seems to translate out to the audience, with gasps and moans from the audience as the more disturbing scenes play out.

The only stylistic choice that feels odd is the soundtrack, certain scenes have lilting bluegrass songs played over the top of them.  At these points the film seems to get a bit cheesy; the atmosphere transforms into that of a Jack Daniels advert.  It's a weird choice, especially as the soundtrack is composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who've previously collaborated on film soundtracks to fantastic effect.   

Tom Hardy as Forrest
'Lawless' is a very well put together film, with at least two brilliant performances from Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce, but there's a disturbing nihilism at the core that's hard to ignore.   I should mention that even within all the blood it's frequently darkly funny, with Tom Hardy getting most of the laughs in the film.  Even so, this is a film with an extremely pessimistic view of human nature, and the absence of empathy in the film means it's hard to like these people.  This in turn makes it hard to become emotionally involved in the narrative,  which hurts the film.  The poster loudly exclaims: "BROTHERS. GANGSTERS. HEROES.".  They should be prosecuted for false advertising.  There are no heroes here.

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