LAWLESS (2012)

Jack: Shia LaBeouf
Forrest: Tom Hardy
Floyd: Gary Oldman
Maggie: Jessica Chastain
Charley: Guy Pearce
The Weinstein Company Presents A Film Directed By: John Hillcoat
Written By: Nick Cave
115 minutes
Rated R

All you want from a movie is for it to give you something you’ve never seen before. In LAWLESS, you get a matronly badass-shitkicker in a sweater. Do you know how hard it is to be convincingly badass in a sweater? Sweaters and shitkicking generally don’t mix. Even Bill Cosby (who, believe it or not, was a total badass in 1972’s HICKEY & BOGGS) needed to slow down and get domestic before he could get into the whole sweater thing. It’s a testament to Tom Hardy, as the outlaw-bootlegger Forrest Bondurant, that he can be so charismatic and so convincingly unfukwitable, even while standing nearly motionless through a good amount of LAWLESS. In a sweater.
Always, in a sweater.

And the sweater isn’t even the half of it. Hardy plays Forrest, the middle brother to the older, haunted and tormented Howard (Jason Clarke from PUBLIC ENEMIES and the spitting image of a younger Michael Mann) and the much younger, idealistic and naïve Jack (Shia LaBeouf, who really looks like the young Steven Spielberg). Hardy plays the role as essentially a mother figure in relation to the other two. Howard was a veteran of the first World War, and now is the skull-stomping enforcer backing the Bondurants’ moonshine business. He’s Papa Bear.
Now Jack doesn’t have Howard or even Forrest’s talent or inclination for violence and intimidation, but he does have the brash self-assurance and ambition of youth that the brothers are going to need if they’re going to adapt to the changing culture of Prohibition-era bootlegging.  
Still, he’s Baby Bear.
Now, calling Forrest the movie’s Mama Bear does not mean he isn’t a mean motherfucker. If a group has an obvious alpha-male, sometimes the smart move is to step forward and weigh in only when it’s necessary. Ernest Borgnine played a similar role in THE WILD BUNCH. The cool thing about Forrest is that he chooses to let his older brother Howard be the alpha, while obviously remaining the guy running the show. Forrest is just as deadly as Howard, but craftier, and temperamentally he’s the steadiest brother by far. And Forrest is the one with the baddest rep – he’s the guy who can’t be killed, or that’s what they say in Bondurant country.

LAWLESS was adapted from a fact-based novel called THE WETTEST COUNTY IN THE WORLD by Matt Bondurant, Forrest Bondurant’s grand-nephew. It was adapted by Nick Cave (who also provided the score, with Warren Ellis) and directed by John Hillcoat (who previously made 2005’s THE PROPOSITION, 2009’s THE ROAD). LAWLESS is a perfect match for the talents of Cave and Hillcoat, its core story of brotherly love a direct echo of THE PROPOSITION’s bloody, neo-Biblical brotherhood fable, its sense of constant danger reminiscent of THE ROAD, and its brutal, brutal violence a common thread of both previous films.
LAWLESS gets special points for violence, in point of fact. It looks and acts like a prestige picture, but LAWLESS is positively grindhouse, all-the-damn-way-down-and-dirty when it comes to violence. There are slashed throats, eyeballs punched out by brass knuckles, and disembodied testicles. The masterful editing by Dylan Tichenor (MAGNOLIA, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, THE TOWN) plays these scenes for all the impact and viscera they’re worth – it’s a special skill to know exactly how many milliseconds to hold on the image of severed gonads. Holy fuck, dude. LAWLESS is probably the most aggro action movie I’ve seen all year, barring only THE RAID. Quite honestly, LAWLESS makes EXPENDABLES 2 look like an episode of Davey & Goliath.
What’s most intriguing about the movie is how its acts of violence, while ever-present and always in danger of happening, occur only sporadically. You’re lulled into a false sense of security by their placement in the film. You almost forget the horrible gore you saw a few scenes back, because then the movie downshifts into its coming-of-age story with Jack and the Quaker girl he’s sweet on (Mia Wasikowska from THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT and Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND), or to the unusual, awkward love story between Forrest and the dancehall girl who moves in with the guys (an impressively nude Jessica Chastain).
And these characters, for the most part, aren’t violent guys. Jack doesn’t have it in him. Forrest has plenty of it in him, but he keeps his violent side on lockdown, deploying it artfully, in surgical doses. Even the most destructive brother, Howard, would much rather get drunk and mess around – he’s like a mechanical bull Forrest switches on when the situation calls for it. These guys may be criminals by profession, but generally not by temperament.

The change blows into town like a pestilence, and his name is Rakes. The great Guy Pearce (most recently seen hero-ing it up in LOCKOUT) plays this crooked lawman like a pale shadow of a human being, a sneering parademon with obsessive-compulsive disorder and a mile-wide sadistic streak. Rakes has a method of punishment that far exceeds the crime – he’s out for blood. Unfortunately, he’s got the law on his side, and even the Bondurant-friendly local sheriff (a very good Bill Camp, who is also seen this year in COMPLIANCE and who, ironically, played Frank Nitti in Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES). Rakes has a burn-the-village technique when it comes to rousting out the Bondurants, and having seen a movie or two before, we all know it’s going to get very ugly once they’re rousted.
LAWLESS is a dense, atmospheric period-action film with good casting top to bottom. CHRONICLE breakout Dane DeHaan is appropriately likable as the Bondurants’ crippled apprentice, Cricket. And I haven’t even mentioned the solid cameo by Gary Oldman, playing a composite character based on some real-life gangsters of the time, who seems to Jack Bondurant kind of like a movie star come to life but is a little more dangerous than that. Noah Taylor is also fun as a kind of Gary Oldman mini-me.
The score is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and it’s typically terrific, but the reason the soundtrack is a must-own is the vocal contributions by Mark Lanegan, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and Ralph Stanley. Lanegan is arguably the greatest of contemporary alt-rock vocalists, with his mournful hell-hound rasp and grit. Emmylou Harris is the legendary country singer-songwriter who no less than Johnny Cash called the best around. Willie Nelson should need no introduction to anyone here. And nor should Ralph Stanley, quite frankly, as he’s one of the most eminent artists in bluegrass music, but to younger audiences and film fanatics he’s best known as one of the prominent voices on the O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? soundtrack. Cave and Ellis recruited these fantastic singers to provide vocals for, in addition to Nick Cave originals, cover versions of off-the-wall choices of songs from Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, Link Wray, Captain Beefheart (!), and John Lee Hooker. It’s the soundtrack of the year, until anyone can show me different.





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