Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Directed by John Hillcoat, written by Nick Cave, starring Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain, and Guy Pearce - Rated R

Surprisingly fun movie from the director of The Road...that just doesn't sound right for some reason.

I’ve been following the careers of director John Hillcoat and writer/musician Nick Cave since I saw their phenomenal film, The Proposition.  Hillcoat followed that film with The Road which, while divisive, I found to be very engaging, if not extremely depressing.  The Proposition was certainly depressing as well, so I was surprised to find that Hillcoat and Cave’s latest collaboration, Lawless, was a fun movie.  Don’t get me wrong, Hillcoat’s previous films are enjoyable, but they are miles away from fun. 

Lawless lends itself to a fun tone because of the true story/legend of the Bondurant family of Tennessee during the Prohibition years.  The story of the Bondurant brothers is certainly violent, but it’s handled in a folksy, old-fashioned tall tale kind of way that left me with a smile on my face.  The story is a lengthy tale of a backwoods Virginia bootlegging family that had to deal with everything except actual law enforcement.  The setting of the film is truly lawless, as the cops seem to be much more villainous than the criminals.

The cops as the bad guys routine is nothing new.  If anything, Lawless makes it much simpler and removes any trepidation from the viewer.  Typically, when I find myself rooting for the lawbreaker of a film, I have to stop and deal with the fact that I am rooting for someone who is causing others harm (the first seasons of “Breaking Bad” come to mind).  Lawless can sidestep that because of the law that is being broken.  Most people, at this point, find Prohibition to be a ridiculous moment in our history.  It didn’t stop anyone from drinking and it gave rise to mass crime and corruption.  With that mentality, you can easily look to the cops as problems rather than solutions. 

The Bondurant boys of the film are just making their way in Franklin County, Tennessee.  It’s just that making their way involves making moonshine.  In a typical movie, the main issue would be cops busting up the stills.  That’s still the an issue, but the cops are only after the Bondurants because they don’t want to cut a deal with a mobster who wants to consolidate all off the alcohol he sells in the big cities.  The leader of the Bondurant clan, Forrest (Tom Hardy), is stubborn to say the least and decides to take the family down a different path, and brothers Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) have to accept that.  Creepy crooked cop (hello, alliteration) Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) represents the forces attempting to stop the Bondurants.  What follows is less backwoods war and more lighthearted, folksy goings-on scattered with extreme violence and surprising comedy. 

Tom Hardy creates most of the comedy, and violence for that matter, even if he is not the focus of the film (unfortunately).  He mumbles and grunts through each scene and it makes for some very funny moments.  He is also a very imposing character; this is the same guy who played Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.  But because he is a man of grunts rather than words, the movie relies on Jack to progress the story.

Shia LaBeouf does a fine job as Jack; it’s just that he is not nearly as interesting or talented as Tom Hardy.  This is certainly a step up from Transformers, though.  He plays a typical LaBeouf character as Jack wants to rush headfirst into everything and prove himself to anyone who is willing to pay attention.  Unfortunately for all involved, Guy Pearce is the person paying attention.

Pearce (a Hillcoat regular) livens up the screen with his portrayal of a strange, sadistic big city cop.  Every scene featuring Pearce is cringe-inducing, but he manages to keep it from becoming a moustache twirling villain role.  He is definitely the guy to root against, but he’s too weird too hate outright. 

Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain (the woman who is in every other movie now) round out the cast as the love interests of two of the brothers.  They are a bit more than simple love interests, but they get the least to do in the film. 

Gary Oldman is also in the film, but I only mention him because I thought it was strange how he was plastered all over the marketing of the film yet his role is little more than a cameo.  His few scenes are great, though.  A little Oldman is better than none at all, I suppose.

The real star of the film is the writing.  This could have been a by-the-numbers “root for the outlaws” movie.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s been done so many times.  Instead, the writers (and reality, since this is based on a true story) injected some tall tale humor into the mix.  I don’t want to ruin anything, so I’ll just say that there are a few moments in which severe violence happens and the resolution of said violence is not what you might expect.  It makes the movie slightly ridiculous a few times, but it is a welcome kind of ridiculous.  I laughed aloud multiple times watching this film, and I believe the filmmakers wanted that response.

Overall, Hillcoat and Cave have created an interesting film.  It’s much lighter than their previous collaboration, but if anyone needed to lighten up for a next film, it was these two.  So check it out when it comes out on video, because this is about as inviting and crowd-pleasing as Hillcoat and Cave are going to get…and that is definitely a compliment.


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