Lawless: Your Burning Questions Answered

by Ethan Alter August 29, 2012 10:46 am
<i>Lawless</i>: Your Burning Questions Answered

At the tail end of last summer, The Weinstein Company made a bet that adult audiences weary of sequels, comic-book movies and other blockbuster fare would turn out for a straight-up, grown-up thriller distinguished by a cast of respected character actors and a historical hook. That movie was The Debt -- which told the story of a group of retired Israeli Mossad agents who flash back to an operation from the '60s that changed all of their lives -- and it wound up doing solid business, solid enough that the Weinsteins are pulling the same late-summer counterprogramming stunt today with Lawless, a Prohibition-era crime thriller about a trio of bootlegging brothers in Virginia who refuse to bend to the new law of the land or the crooked businessmen who want in on their operation. Directed by critical darling John Hillcoat (best known for the Down Under Western The Proposition) and featuring a heavy-hitting ensemble that includes Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain (who also appeared in The Debt), Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman and... um, Shia LaBeouf, Lawless certainly has the pedigree to be this summer's token prestige picture, but is the whole as great as the sum of its parts? I'll answer that -- and more of your burning questions -- below.

So when I hear the name Lawless, I immediately flash to a VHS box for a mid-'80s Cannon-produced film, with the title appearing in bold red letters under a big photo of a snarling Arnold and/or Sly and/or Dolph as well as a tagline reading "When this man is pushed too far he becomes..." Is this Lawless flick as awesome as that fictional VHS tape?
Of course not -- what could be? Those Cannon Films promised exploitative action movie cheese and delivered, whereas this Lawless -- despite a copious amount of bloodshed -- is much too high-minded to be confused with a vintage Golan/Globus production. It's worth noting that the movie was originally called The Wettest County in the World, which happens to be the name of the book it's based on. But the studio was probably afraid that the general public might think the film was a belated Waterworld sequel and opted for a more generic title that looks cool on a marquee and doesn't hint at the fact that the movie is actually a period picture. Because, you know, moviegoers need to be tricked into learning anything about history these days. That's why so many of them now think that the X-Men solved the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I haven't read the original book -- what was the wettest county in the world? And what the heck does that even mean, anyway?
Clearly you didn't watch that great Ken Burns PBS documentary, Prohibition, last year.

Nah, my favorite Burns doc is Pillows and Blankets.
I love that one too. Well, the title is a bit of Prohibition slang for you. Communities that abided by the 18th Amendment -- which was ratified in 1919 and made the manufacturing and selling of "intoxicating liquors" illegal -- were labeled "dry," while those that continued to produce and make available alcohol were "wet." The book is set in one of Prohibition-era America's wet places, Franklin County, VA, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains -- real Appalachian country. It's a historical novel penned by Matt Bondurant, who happens to be related to the central characters, brothers Forrest (Hardy), Jack (LaBeouf) and Howard Bondurant (Jason Clarke); in fact, he's Jack's grandson. (Hopefully Matt's dearly departed granddad isn't rolling over in his grave at the thought that he's being portrayed onscreen by the kid from the Transformers movies.) Back in the '20s and '30s, the Bondurant siblings ran a hugely successful moonshine operation that endured despite Prohibition laws and the machinations of corrupt officials. Naturally, the writer uses the license of fiction to embellish his ancestor's exploits and the movie takes that even further. This is basically the Appalachian version of The Untouchables (another outsized depiction of a real-life Prohibition tale) with a dash of The Godfather mixed in.

When you put it like that, this movie sounds pretty terrific. What's the catch? It's Shia, isn't it? That little punk ruins everything.
Largely yes, but we'll get to all that later. For now, let's accentuate the positives, because the movie does have its pleasures and -- looking ahead at the release calendar -- it's going to be the only decent adult-oriented picture playing until P.T. Anderson's The Master drops in two weeks. To begin with, you've got the whole backwoods setting, which Hillcoat has excelled with in the past. The Proposition took place in an isolated town in the armpit of the Outback and his decent adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's ultimately unfilmable masterpiece The Road made strong use of desolate rural landscapes. Although filmed in Georgia rather than on location in Virginia, the movie does capture the flavor of the Appalachian region. There's also the Prohibition angle, which I greatly enjoyed having recently become fascinated by that misbegotten period in American history. (Thanks again, Ken Burns!) The action is also fairly grounded and realistic, not to mention pretty gory. And then you've got that cast! Gary Oldman sadly isn't in the film very much -- he plays a big-time gangster whose storyline feels as though it lies in tatters on the cutting room floor -- but Guy Pearce is the movie's most effective heavy, as the nattily-dressed, eyebrow-shaved federal enforcer Charlie Rakes. Special shout-outs also go to Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain, who are trapped in typical love interest roles for Jack and Forrest respectively, but by their mere presence both actresses make these characters more interesting than they probably read on the page. And thanks to Lawless, Chastain will now have her own entry on, if you're keeping score on that sort of thing.

Again, not really hearing the downside yet.
Oh, it's coming. But first one more bit of praise, this time for Mr. Tom Hardy. For those who were disappointed that his oh-so-pretty features were hidden behind that gimp mask for the entirety of The Dark Knight Rises, you'll be glad to know that the role of Forrest requires no such facial obstructions. Instead, it cries out for an actor who can believably turn an ordinary bootlegger into an almost mythic creature of backwoods lore. As written by screenwriter Nick Cave (yes, that Nick Cave), Forrest is presented as a force of nature who can't be stopped or killed; during the course of the film, he survives shoot-outs, fist-fights and one very gruesome throat-slitting and comes back from each injury stronger and more capable than before. His Wolverine-like healing factor becomes something of a running gag as the movie proceeds and it probably would tip over into blatant absurdity if it wasn't for the fact that Hardy himself practically radiates immortality, not to mention a "don't fuck with me" attitude. Much as I liked Jeremy Renner in the Bourne reboot, this guy really should be the new face of that franchise. Or, failing that, the new James Bond when Daniel Craig decides he prefers his martinis stirred and not shaken.

Okay, can you finally talk about how much Shia sucks now?
Okay, fine. To put it in less strident terms, LaBeouf is clearly the odd man out here and while Hillcoat deserves credit for making an unconventional casting choice -- because, hey, sometimes those risks pay off; just ask the first (and arguably still the best) contemporary big-screen Batman, Michael Keaton -- it wound up being the wrong call in this case. Not that LaBeouf doesn't try to prove that he's worthy to be the film's central character and Michael Corleone surrogate (see, Jack's the youngest Bondurant bro, who has been kept largely ignorant of the family business until he wants to break into the bootlegging game himself); if anything, he tries too hard. He's visibly "acting" in every scene and that puts a damper on his efforts to connect with the more naturalistic performances happening around him. He's thankfully not as obnoxious here as he was in those Transformers sequels, which he clearly hated appearing in as much as I hated watching them, but if this is supposed to mark the next great phase of his career, he may be begging Michael Bay for his job back in 2013.

He can only come back to Transformers if Optimus Prime steps on him Bambi Meets Godzilla-style in the very first scene. Besides LeBarf, what else doesn't click in Lawless?
Well, let's just say that Oldman's storyline isn't the only one that feels truncated. At times, I almost got the feeling that I was watching a miniseries that had been edited down into a two-hour feature. There's a lot of haphazard cutting between various plot threads and while Jack is supposed to be the focal point of the narrative, he's not written or performed strongly enough to serve as its unifying figure. Cave and Hillcoat also seem far more interested in how these characters died than how they lived. They lavish most of their care and attention on the film's more visceral sequences, like the climactic shoot-out and the aforementioned throat-cutting, and those scenes are quite well done. But what comes between them eventually comes to feel like filler that the filmmakers are just racing through to get to the stuff they really care about. Honestly, they probably should have just made the Cannon version of this story; Lawless has the heart of an ultra-violent exploitation feature, but is dressed up in the clothes of a more serious-minded prestige picture.

So bottom line, stick with The Untouchables and The Godfather, right?
In terms of longevity, sure. But Lawless is worth a look if you're a history buff, a Tom Hardy devotee or just in the mood for solid action fare that's less cartoonish than your average summer blockbuster. Now excuse me while I go find a Tumblr page devoted to vintage Cannon VHS box art.

Looking for more answers to your burning questions about specific 2012 movies? Read our Q&A's of Hope Springs, Battleship and This Means War

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