Opens August 29
A follow-up to “The Road,” John Hillcoat’s “Lawless,” is a stylishly elegant, ultra violent gangster-Western movie, offering a sporadically involving account of bootlegging in Virginia in the early years of the Depression.
“Lawless” centers on the adventures of–and relationships among–three vastly different siblings, well played by Shia LaBeouf, Jason Clarke, and best of all Tom Hardy. Bound to become a star, Hardy recalls in masculine appearance, charisma, and cool attributes that had made Steve McQueen a major star in the 1960s.
Adapting to the screen Matt Bondurant’s 2008 novel, “The Wettest County in the World,” which related the story of his grandfather (Jack Bondurant), Nick Cave tries to give the complex and colourful literary source a linear, shapely structure, but the end result is a sharply uneven narrative, which lacks consistent dramatic momentum, and is often punctuated by sudden bursts of graphic violence, which are not entirely motivated.
“Lawless” world premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Fest (In Competition) as a sampler of what programmer Thierry Fremaux refers to “personal genre” films, which aptly describes this picture. While following the conventions of its genres, the movie also displays Hillcoat’s vision.
Hillcoat is a gifted director who tries to imbue his rough and tough films (The U.K. made “The Proposition” in 2005, the U.S. post-apocalyptic “The Road” in 2009) with artistic and philosophical ambitions, while also trying to appeal to more mainstream audiences.
The Weinstein Company will need an extra muscle in putting over an artsy gangster-Western film, which is not only bloody (often tough to watch), but also glamorizes its criminal anti-heroes, while downplaying entirely the role of the law and the authorities (whose representatives are one-dimensional caricatures).
That said, it’s been a while since we saw such a genre item, and one cannot deny its best element: the high-caliber cast, mostly male (as expected), but also including two charming actresses that are very much in demand now, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, as the love interests of two of the brothers.
The iconography, characters, and thematic conventions of the gangster-Western genre are all manifest in “Lawless,” a saga of three bootlegging brothers, dominating the whisky manufacturing and distribution in Franklin County, circa 1931, at the height of the Prohibition era.
Initially, the siblings come across as types, or even stereotypes. Jack (LaBeouf), the central figure, who also serves as narrator with his voice-overs throughout the story, is the youngest, a hot-headed, eager for action lad but one who’s inexperienced and naïve in matters of business and the also heart. Jack’s awkward manner and indecisive courting provide some of the movie’s soft and charming sequences.
Jack stands in contrast to Howard (Jason Clarke), the least developed character of the trio, a big, reticent, boozy man, who was damaged in the war, and has now accepted his roles in physically protecting the operation—and obeying orders.
Orders come from Forrest (Hardy), the sharpt, handsome, macho bra, who is the epitome of cool—and action; he always carrying and ready to use a knuckleduster in his pocket. Functioning as the head of the burgeoning business, Forrest is a variation of the brooding silent Westerners (like Gary Cooper), a man of action and few words, who rules the family.
The Bondurants are entrepreneurs, who have built a thriving local business by concocting a popular brand of moonshine. But Franklin County’s bootlegging days are about to end with the arrival of Chicago’s Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). Rakes new “law” is corrupt, but more importantly, it threatens the brothers’ business. Tension begins to build up, as most of the county gives in to Rakes’ ruthless crackdown—except for the naturally rebellious Bondurants.
As the family rallies to fight Rakes, the fraternal dynamic shifts drastically. Jack’s ambitions and enterprises alter the balance of power between the brothers as he careens into manhood. Dreaming of expensive suits, fast cars and beautiful women, Jack starts his own bootlegging operation. He and his friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan) soup up cars and build stills against Forrest’s wishes.
Jack starts to prosper, even selling his moonshine to Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), the big city gangster he idolizes.
Not to neglect the female members of the audience, the tales describes how the lives of the Bondurants get more personable but also more complicated by the arrival of two beautiful women, The exotic, steadfast Maggie (red-haired Jessica Chastain), who brings a secret past, immediately catches the eye of the guarded Forrest. For her part, the quiet, pious Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) slowly warms to Jack, and the affair enables her to channel her own rebellious streak.
Jack Bondurant – Shia LaBeouf
Forrest Bondurant – Tom Hardy
Howard Bondurant – Jason Clarke
Charley Rakes – Guy Pearce
Maggie Beauford – Jessica Chastain
Bertha Minnix – Mia Wasikowska
Cricket Pate – Dane DeHaan
Danny – Chris McGarry
Mason Wardell – Tim Tolin
Floyd Banner – Gary Oldman
Deputy Henry Abshire – Lew Temple
Deputy Jeff Richards – Marcus Hester
Sheriff Hodges – Bill Camp
Tizwell Minnix – Alex Van
Gummy Walsh – Noah Taylor
A Weinstein Co. release presented with Yuk Films and Benaroya Pictures of an Annapurna Pictures.
Produced by Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Megan Ellison, Michael Benaroya.
Executive producers, Dany Wolf, Rachel Shane, Jason Blum, Scott Hanson, Cassian Elwes, Laura Rister, Robert Ogden Barnum, Ted Schipper, Randy Manis, Ben Sachs.
Co-producers, John Allen, Matthew Budman.
Co-executive producers, Clayton Young, James Lejsek.
Directed by John Hillcoat.
Screenplay, Nick Cave, based on the book “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant.
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