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Pretty Crappy53.33%
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2 reviews, 3 user ratings

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by Brett Gallman

"Has just enough in the tank."
3 stars

With “Lawless,” Nick Cave and John Hillcoat take the outlaw film back to its Prohibition-era source, where a rural, rough and tumble makeover and a fresh coat of spit-shine only serve to deliver a slight little game of cops and robbers.

Adapted from Matt Bondurant’s “The Wettest County in the World,” the film recounts the exploits of the author’s grandfather and grand-uncles, a trio who reigned supreme as the preeminent moonshiners in the hills of Franklin County, Virginia. This was no small feat, as the hills were flowing with illegal booze, with the various distilleries lighting up the mountainside “like a Christmas tree,” the film’s narrator, Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) tells us. He’s the runt of a litter that also includes brooding brute Howard (Jason Clarke) and Forrest, the hulking, taciturn ringleader that’s become the stuff of local legend due to his refusal to succumb to anything that’s been thrown his way.

When a new, big-city deputy (Guy Pearce) arrives in town to clean house, the Bondurant boys refuse to even blink and continue wheeling and dealing. Reveling not only in their own lifestyle but also the violence that accompanies it, the trio rule as kings of the mountain, with only the intrusion of a couple of dames (Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska) serving as reason to pause, however briefly. Even then, “Lawless” is far from concerned with the underlying criminal psyche and any moral anguish, preferring instead to paint its subjects as self-mythologizing folk heroes.

Any complexity is washed away by the good ol’ boy approach that results in a southern-fried vigilante film doused in thick accents, kudzu, and podunk glorification, and “Lawless” excels when it embraces the boisterous disposition of its heroes to bomb thunderously down its dirt roads and its unruly landscapes. Cave has also scored the film along with Warren Ellis, and it’s a delightful assembly of regional rockabilly with a hillbilly touch to compliment the untamed wilderness. A couple of montage sequences emit a breathless energy that wraps you up in the rock star lifestyle of these mountain man bandits that’s soaked in exhaust fumes and distillery fire. Whether they’re fuelling drunken revelries or running and gunning, the film worships them as rustic heroes.

It’s a rich world with a not so rich story, as “Lawless” mostly clangs along episodically and without much of a through-line. The Bondurants’ clash with authority takes the form of violent brawls and covert ‘shine operations that also bring them into conflict with rival gangsters. Gary Oldman basically cameos as Floyd Banner, a notorious big-city counterpart that even elicits awe from Jack, who all but idolizes him even while conducting business. Such asides give sense of a larger world that’s ripe for exploration even within the boundaries of the pulpy-throwback here; I could easily see this concept working even better as a premium cable miniseries since there’s a sense that the Bondurants were up to so much more than what we see here.

Instead, we’re left to what amounts to a big budget game of dress-up where all the performers seem a little too giddy to try on their clothes and highly affected accents. Still, you could find a worse ensemble to fill out the production, even one that’s as obviously put-on as this one. Hardy leads the way with lumbering, mumbling performance that sees him regard everything from an absurd distance and with a compulsive grunt for every situation. A burly, almost animalistic hulk, Forest is ruthless and calculating but guided by a vague sense of duty and honor that typically comes with a prince among thieves.

Hardy barely plays him as human, though; it’s as if Forrest has completely bought into his own myth and carries himself as an almost asexual titan who barely even shows much interest in Chastain’s character, even when she nakedly strolls into his room one night. When he’s impelled into action on her behalf, it feels driven more by an instinctual protectiveness than actual love.

Chastain is one of the few characters with some sort of depth; formerly a dancer in Chicago, she’s fled the city life for something a little quieter. Instead, she’s plunged right into the thick of it here, and Chastain is a tough gal in a boy’s club. Her grace is incongruent with the uncouth surroundings, and she would be the woman that sets the Bondurants straight if this were that type of movie. It’s not, though, and Chastain ends up feeling like a little bit of arm candy for a film that has no use for stuff like character arcs and nuance. There are Good Guys and Bad Guys, with Pearce hamming it up as the later; a coiffed, slick-haired pretty boy with a dandy demeanor, it’s he who actually becomes public enemy, a Chicagoan intruder into a backwoods haunt that doesn't take too kindly to him.

If anyone were to have an actual arc, it feels like it should be LaBeouf’s Jack. Introduced as being too timid to engage in violence even as a child, Jack’s just an innocuous wheelman for the Bondurant outfit. Along with an associate named Cricket (Dane DeHann), he mostly toils away in the background until he brings it upon himself to play gangster. His sometimes feels like the typical rags-to-riches gangster story where the common man bites off more than he can chew by becoming a criminal made starry-eyed by fast cars and dapper suits. He takes an interest in the local preacher’s daughter (Wasikowska) and introduces her to this world, but it’s difficult to say that it ever goes anywhere of real consequence. LaBeouf is fine in the role, but the film has little interest in Jack as a character, preferring instead to see him as a stitch in a tapestry that’s colored with unflinching violence and empty style.

An unnecessary last gasp epilogue attempts to bring some moralizing solemnity to the proceedings, and it’s more convinced of the film’s profundity than I am; it’s certainly at odds with the devil may care attitude with which the film largely (and rightfully) proceeds. In that respect, “Lawless” is the spiritual successor to the Romantic, pulpy outlaw flicks that have preceded it, so it’s breezy, funny, and, ultimately, as weightless as an empty liquor bottle.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23176&reviewer=429
originally posted: 08/29/12 19:33:56
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2012 Festival de Cannes series, click here.

User Comments

12/25/12 jo bunch of clowns playing dress up is right 1 stars
12/06/12 Ding Dong Initially promising, the wheels come off and movie becomes boring, banal garbage. 2 stars
8/30/12 action movie fan potentially good period recreation of moonshiners-unfortunately forgettable 2 stars
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  29-Aug-2012 (R)
  DVD: 27-Nov-2012


  DVD: 27-Nov-2012

Directed by
  John Hillcoat

Written by
  Nick Cave

  Tom Hardy
  Jessica Chastain
  Gary Oldman
  Shia LaBeouf
  Mia Wasikowska
  Guy Pearce

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