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2 reviews, 4 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Hoochie Brothers"
2 stars

Watching the new Prohibition-era crime drama "Lawless," I couldn't help but think back to a similar string of films that Roger Corman produced through his New World company back in the 1970's to cash in on the surprise success of the groundbreaking hit "Bonnie & Clyde." Like those earlier films, it tells a story loosely inspired by real events in which the outlaws are heroes and the authority figures are depicted as the bad guys, it contains plenty of violence and sex (though tilting more towards the former) and it offers up a cast consisting of a number of rising young stars with a couple of canny veteran performers thrown into the mix for good measure. The difference is that while the best of the Corman endeavors--films like "Big Bad Mama," "Bloody Mama" and "The Lady in Red"--all seemed to have a purpose to them, even if it was simply to create a cheap exploitation film that would do well on the drive-in and grindhouse circuits, "Lawless" just drifts around aimlessly for more than two hours without ever having much of an idea of what it wants to be or what it wants to say. The end result is pretty much a mess through and through, one that is all the more disappointing because of the level of talent that has pretty much been squandered along the way.

Set in 1931, a couple years before the repeal of Prohibition, in Franklin County, Virginia, the film focuses on the Bondurant brothers--Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf)--a trio of siblings who have more or less single-handedly kept the area flooded with illegal moonshine. Of the three, Forrest is the undisputed leader thanks to his physical and intellectual capabilities, not to mention rumors that he literally cannot be killed. Howard, still a bit shell-shocked from the war, is more or less the muscle of the group and is always willing to pound anyone who interferes with his family. Jack is the youngest and, inevitably, the least of the three and his duties are limited to driving the truck when they make deliveries, whining that he wants more to do and getting into deep trouble whenever he strays from doing exactly what he was told to do by his brothers. On the bright side, this gives him more time to awkwardly woo the innocent, church-going Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) under the nose of her stern father.

For the most part, business is good, they have an understanding with the local cops that keeps them going with a minimum of fuss and Forrest even finds himself beginning a quiet flirtation with Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a mysterious woman from up north who has arrived to work as a barmaid in the tavern/service station that the Borduants run as a front for their operations. The fun quickly evaporates with the arrival of special deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce), who has been sent from Chicago to clean things up. Despite his foppish nature, Rakes is a brutal sadist and in his efforts to crush the Borduants, he first has Jack beaten up and, when the brothers retaliate, he ups the ante by sending a couple of men to slash Forrest's throat and rape Maggie. Miraculously, Forrest survives and once he heals, the brothers declare war on Rakes--even Jack is able to step up when he cuts an unexpected and advantageous deal with famed gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman)--and it all leads to the expected finale in which everyone gathers at a picturesque location in order to unload countless bullets into each other until the last person standing is the victor.

"Lawless" was directed by John Hillcoat and adapted for the screen by Australian rock singer Nick Cave from "The Wettest County in the World," a semi-fictional account of the events by Matt Bondurant, who was Jack's grandson. Hillcoat and Cave previously collaborated on "The Proposition," a 2006 film that also played with the conventions of another popular American film genre--the western in that case--by offering viewers an increasingly brutal saga of revenge and one-upmanship gone wildly awry.(In the interim, Hillcoat also directed the disastrous adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" but out of kindness, let us pretend that it never happened and I guarantee we will all feel better in the long run.) I wasn't particularly enamored by that film--certainly not as much as some of my colleagues--but it at least felt as if it was all of one piece and had a driving purpose behind it. By comparison, "Lawless" is all over the map right from the start and continues to spiral out of control as it goes on. This would be bad enough on its own but when you compare it to the likes of "Boardwalk Empire"--a show that takes a similar historical premise and has done infinitely more with it than this film both as a whole and as individual weekly episodes--and its failings become even more apparent.

There really isn't much of a story to be had and what little there is--mostly involving the escalating battle between the brothers and Rakes--is on the level of a Tom & Jerry cartoon, though perhaps without the depth. Too many characters--such as Howard and the women--are introduced and left undeveloped and too many subplots--especially the romance between Jack and Bertha--pop up out of nowhere and add nothing to the proceedings but unneeded heft to the running time. In one of the most egregious moves, the film gives Gary Oldman's mobster character a genuinely awesome introduction and then has him pop up again about halfway through in an extended sequence that is one of the film's very best moments. With that kind of setup, one might reasonably expect that his character would play an important part in the proceedings but instead disappears so thoroughly that it is a wonder why Cave and Hillcoat even bothered to introduce him in the first place.

Likewise, the performances are also all over the place as well. The best and most satisfying performances, outside of Oldman's brief turn, come from Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain and that is more because they have the kind of distinct personalities that allow them to carve out space for themselves and liven up the proceedings in ways that the screenplay should have done in the first place. On the other hand, Shia LaBeouf and Mia Wasikowska are both as bland and boring as can be--the former goes through the entire film looking as though he has just wandered in from a Roaring 20's theme party while the usually exciting Wasikowska has so little to work with here that she just seems lost and confused throughout.

Then there is the performance from Guy Pearce, a turn so flat-out strange that is liable to leave even those who actually like the rest of the film fairly speechless at its deranged excesses. Granted, the character he is playing here is singular enough that it practically begs anyone undertaking it to go for a scenery-chewing approach but what Pearce--an actor who can be either really good or really awful--does here is so far gone from what one might consider to be reasonable human behavior that it seems as if he washed down the aforementioned scenery with all the moonshine his character has been confiscating. It is a terrible performance but to be fair, it is one of those that is so distinctively dreadful that the film does perk up whenever he appears, if only because viewers are thinking "Good gravy--is he supposed to be acting like that?"

Although I have no working knowledge of its production history, the scattershot nature of the final product combined with its borderline throwaway release suggests that "Lawless" was either a troubled production right from the start or became so after going into post-production. This is a shame because even while it doesn't work at all as a whole, it does have some worthwhile elements--it looks good throughout, the soundtrack is a blast throughout (with the most oddly entertaining moment coming via veteran singer Ralph Stanley's bluegrass-tinged cover of the Velvet Underground classic "White Light/White Heat") and there are even a few good individual scenes scattered here and there. Unfortunately, neither Cave nor Hillcoat seem to have any idea of how to pull them all together into a meaningful storyline and so instead throw in plenty of brutality in an effort to distract viewers from noticing that everything else is a mess. "Lawless" may be an ambitious failure but it is still a failure in the end and while its characters may be expert bootleggers, most viewers are likely to find the film itself to be little more than cinematic rotgut.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23176&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/29/12 10:20:28
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2012 Festival de Cannes series, click here.

User Comments

3/01/21 morris campbell decent 2 stars
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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