(dir. John Hillcoat, 2012)
You’d be forgiven for thinking John Hillcoat’s new gangster flick, Lawless, is adapted from some or other Cormac McCarthy book. In other words, what I’m saying is, I forgive myself for thinking that. I forgive myself for two reasons: one, because Hillcoat is the director who tackled The Road in 2009, and two, because the trailer for Lawless seems to indicate he’s aiming for the same epic, gory, storied irreverence the Coen brothers pulled off so well in their rendition of No Country for Old Men.
Come to find out, Lawless is adapted from historical novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, grandson and grand-nephew to the Virginia bootleggers he fictionalizes therein. Every Southerner, when asked, can recall the gist of a family legend worthy of telling in a book or movie; Bondurant is now among the few of us to actually capitalize on his. Good for him.
The great thing about reviewing a movie like Lawless—which has been divisive since its Cannes debut in May and middling since its wide release three weeks ago—is that there’s no rush. You can afford to get a little lost on the way there. You can park and make sure a guy with a limp makes it across the deserted mall parking lot to his car. If, when inside, a theater patron steps toward the popcorn line at the same moment you do, you can say, “Go ahead. You have a showing of The Expendables 2 to get to. Today, we are the same.”
Despite your best efforts, you’re likely to hit your seat in time for a few trailers, including Clint Eastwood’s Trouble with the Chair—er, Curve. Whatever he’s having trouble with these days.
To be sure, there was always the possibility I would find a hidden gem in Lawless, a masterwork carelessly and wrongfully passed over by critics and audiences alike. Still, if that were the case, it would be the film’s job to jump out and grab me. It isn’t necessarily my job to engage it in the same hungry, anxious way I waited for the dinosaur scene in The Tree of Life, then went to Waffle House at 1:00 a.m. to discuss the dinosaur scene, shortly after which I received a phone call from a Nigerian friend who screamed, “The dinosaurs! Changed! My life!”
There are no dinosaurs in Lawless. And without dinosaur-level attentiveness, it is, frankly, a little difficult to discern what is going on at any one moment. The main reason for this, I found, was accents. There are two accents asking to be dealt with here: one is that of a villainous Yankee, for which Guy Pearce gives us his best Joe Pesci. Jessica Chastain wisely sidesteps a commitment to any noticeable accent, despite the fact that her character is (implausibly and needlessly) from the same area of Chicago as Pearce’s. Other cast members, in their various attempts to embody backwoods country folk, manage to sound very little like one another. None seem confident in the dialect; Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf, in particular, often retreat to growling and mumbling.
Relieving yourself of the pressure to understand every bit of dialogue, then, relegates you to following the broad strokes in pantomime. Mia Wasikowska plays some chick who is apparently Amish, and she washes Shia LaBeouf’s feet, which is gross. Gary Oldman sometimes shows up with a gun, or takes a shovel to someone’s neck, and that’s fun. Jessica Chastain plays a waitress, either in a tavern or a Dollywood gift shop. She’s fairly good at remembering that she’s an ex-fan dancer in Prohibition-era Appalachia, and can often be found peeling potatoes in peasant garb, but she also has a red velvet getup that screams Dracula’s Barwench, and once serves coffee in a sweater that looks suspiciously like J.Crew.
What is Lawless about, again? Moonshiners—“We’re moonshiners,” chirps a useless bit of narration as moonshine is sold onscreen. (This lazy narration appears three times: once at the outset, once at the close, and once about two-thirds of the way through, as if to say, Hang in there.) Hardy and LaBeouf are two parts of a trio, each hardheaded and completely inept in his own way. These Bondurant brothers clash with Pearce’s corrupt lawman, who is ruthless, eyebrowless, and can’t stand to be touched by “unclean” mountain dwellers. There’s an interesting dynamic lurking somewhere here—something to do with morality and the law, with America and North-South relations. It remains largely unexplored.
You have to feel for Shia LaBeouf, you really do. His character’s loss of innocence and romance with Wasikowska is the most interesting thread, and the film would have done well to stray from his point-of-view less often. He is the only actor with something of worth to chew on, and the only one who comes to play. He is also so incredibly good at getting the shit beaten out of him, you have to wonder if he’s externalizing a career’s worth of anguish over Even Stevens, three Transformers movies, and the occasional gay slur. His latest strategy seems to be not shaving and getting naked for people like Sigur Ros and Lars von Trier. I hope it pays off. There’s a new Brat Pack on the rise with too many Demi Moores and not enough Rob Lowes.
Tom Hardy, on the other hand, could stand to take it down a notch. We all love him: He’s handsome, he’s British, he’s committed to his craft. He’s got the devoted father thing going for him, and also the I-don’t-care-if-you-think-I’m-bisexual thing. But the unbridled machismo he displays so often, in Warrior and The Dark Knight Rises and now in Lawless, has paid off only once in his career—in Bronson, the indie smash that became his calling card. They say A Streetcar Named Desire, wherein Marlon Brando acts circles around Vivien Leigh, provides the most explicit contrast between classical and “method” acting; in his attempts to out-Brando Brando, I can only hope Hardy doesn’t paint himself into a corner, stuck out like a sore thumb amidst his more naturalistic costars.
Reading between the mumbles, I’d say Lawless’s fatal flaw (perhaps indicated by the hee-haw-hillbilly music constantly blaring in the background) is a failure to take itself seriously. Presumably, the point of fictionalizing once-remarkable people is to build a narrative that makes comment on something, but screenwriter Nick Cave doesn’t seem to think so. The forces behind Lawless are content to let extraneous characters wander through the story without much purpose. Back in the day, Forrest Bondurant might have been legendary in his ability to escape injury, a complex man who was endearingly clumsy in the bedroom but relished in the torture of his enemies. In Forrest Bondurant’s movie, however, shouldn’t those traits serve some end, rather than simply exist? Without a substantive foundation underneath the violence and beautiful landscapes, you’re left with a glass case full of fine actors who haven’t any space to roam.
Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, and Mia Wasikowska. Images courtesy Jaguar PS / Shutterstock.com
If you’re a John Hillcoat fan trying to stay awake during Lawless, I recommend a drinking game. Without a flask (or mason jar of white lightning), you’ll have to play it with food. For every non-fatal bullet wound, you get a swig of soda. Every time Tom Hardy bursts someone’s jugular with his fist, you get a handful of popcorn. And you can’t open your theater candy until you see a slashed underboob.
If you fall asleep during Lawless, you don’t have to watch Lawless, but you also don’t get to eat any Reese’s Pieces.