OK Acting, Plenty Of Violence In ‘Lawless’


The new movie Lawless has a strong film noir feel to it. In some ways, it reminds me of the tough gangster movies of 50 and 60 years ago, in which it was often difficult to figure out which side was the good guys. But the old films just hinted at violence, and this new movie glories in it. It adds a bit of the slasher genre to that type of film. People are beaten, castrated, raped and, of course (the old stand-by), killed.

Yet it is not a “B” movie, one done on the cheap. The cast is large and, with one exception, excellent. Many critics love the picture, while others hate it. It is Bonnie and Clyde with somewhat less attractive leads. Here the focus is on the violence, not the love story. But, as in the older classic, the leads roam through the countryside committing their crimes while being good old boys and girls, and the villains are the big shots who control the police. The narrator (the grandson of Jack Bondurant, one of the leads) simply portrays his family members as small businessmen being oppressed by the evil hand of government. Some might even see a hat tip to sellers of marijuana or, at the other extreme, any small business protesting government regulations.

The Bondurant brothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) are seen at first driving an old truck around their rural neighborhood distributing moonshine. You know they’re good guys because they’re dropping off some at an old lady’s house and later at a wake for a black person. Then the government comes in, led by Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a very nasty man. There are city gangsters led by Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) who get involved as well. And, to add a bit of space, a woman “with a past” escaping Chicago, Maggie (Jessica Chastain) as well as a minister’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska).

A lot of people get beaten, often badly. We see a sympathetic, crippled friend, Cricket (Dane DeHaan) having his neck broken. Wounds are bloody. Forrest gets his throat cut (and survives). Hills justice eventually prevails over evil government, particularly since a year or so later, Prohibition is ended.

The cast, with one exception, is great. Hardy carries off the difficult role as the eldest of the brothers, a large, brooking presence throughout. He exudes the kind of controlled violence we used to see in actors such as Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin. His strength is always visible, even when he is not moving. His romance with Maggie, a woman as strong as he, is handled beautifully. It seems organic to the plot.

Oldman, in a fairly small part, is his usual excellent self. But Pearce outdoes himself in a tour de force performance as the bad guy. Sneering, nasty, there is nothing redeemable about the character. He is the antithesis to the ideal of the heroic Prohibition cop (think Elliot Ness). He is corrupt, more interested in controlling the trade in alcohol to profit from it than in stopping it. He casually abuses women and beats up helpless men. A film like this needs a worthy villain.

The exception to the excellence of the movie is Shia LaBeouf. He is supposed to be a callow kid (which he can handle) who grows into responsibility (which he cannot). He seems out of place in the cast. Although he looked like someone from that era and dressed the part, he never seemed to actually be of it. His romance with the preacher’s daughter seemed contrived.

A lot of the film focused on the mythology of stories like that of the Bondurants (the original novel The Wettest County in the World was written by Matt Bondurant). Forrest survived World War I, and the three brothers survived the great flu epidemic in 1918. Everyone was convinced they could not be killed, except, of course, for the bad guys. Unfortunately, the focus on the mythology pulls away from the immediacy of the story, and turns pretentious. It is violent (children should not see this film), and it is raw. But it is also a very well-made film of its genre.

I was not originally certain I wanted to see the film. I am not a great fan of violence. But the aura of the film, the acting, the balance of good vs. evil turned Lawless into a worthwhile movie.