Tuesday, 11 September 2012

[Review] Lawless - Far from flawless

Set in Depression-era Franklin County, Virginia, a bootlegging family of three brothers is threatened by a new deputy and other authorities who want a cut of their profits. 

With their previous collaborations being The Proposition and The Road, John Hillcoat and Nick Cave have proved themselves as one of the most exciting double acts working today. One doesn't need to look very far to see what drew the two towards Lawless, based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, (which in turn is based off the actions of Bondurant's grandfather and two great uncles) like The Road and The Proposition before it, Lawless focuses on family in a world inhabited by violence, blurred morality and destruction.

Despite it's boiling with promise of Old Testament scale wrath and carnage, Lawless has only flurishes of inspiring brilliance, leaving it ultimately rather lifeless.

Rather than portraying the city warzones led by ruthless crimelords like the gangster films of old, the focus here is on a small town trio of brothers who bootleg as a means of survival. The youngest of which is Jack, played by an energetic and impressive Shia LaBeouf, looking to distance himself from the last half-decade of his career, he is currently shooting Von Trier's Nymphomaniac. Undervalued and sheltered by his older brothers, he is relegated to the role of driver on their bootlegging runs, but he is out to prove himself not just to his family but to the local ministers daughter. The oldest brother, Forest (played by Tom Hardy) is a stoic hulk of a man capable of great violence, but he also understands it's consequences. The middle brother, Howard (Jason Clarke) is the family's 'wild card' he drinks too much of his own moonshine and lets loose like a canon if provoked. The three (along with their crippled friend Cricket) seem to live with life and have become something of a local lenged due to suriving some events that ny rights should have killed them. That is until the arrival of Guy Pearce's Special Agent Charlie Rakes, a perfume-wearing, appearence obsessed psychopath determined to kick the Bondurant's into line through any means. As one might expect, this leads to an escalating clash between these figures of the old world and the new, with the most gruesome consequences.

No words were spoken, but Shia understood his bruises meant he was forgiven for the Indy 4.

There is a rumour circulating that Harvey Weinstein cut Lawless down to a 115 minute running time, removing much a lot of the artistic moments in favor of a more conventional fare. Whether or not there is truth to them, I'm not sure. But it certainly would account for the film's lifeless atmosphere and scaled back philosphoical meditation on violence, (im)mortality and morality that was so present in Hillcoat and Cave's previous outings. It is not without it's moments completely. There is a scene earlier on in which LaBeouf's Jack drinks a jar of moonshine before crashing the local Baptist service. Suddenly there is an overwhelming surge of rythmic chanting and clapping that proves to much to the tipsy Jack and he bolts. That something-from-nothing sequence is without the highlight of the film and really over far to quickly. It proves that Hillcoat and Cave hadn't lost what made their early collaborations so special. The film looks authentic, but it only captures the aesthetics instead of the esscence, leaving the question; for a time rich in culture, melting-pot religious tension and violent clashes, why does Lawless feel so disinterested in itself? 

Hillcoat's camera is functional but unremarkable, save for a few sequences and artfully framed exterior shots of the world these men belong to. The same can't be said for Nick Cave's soundtrack however, which includes blue grass groups and folk singers to sell an atmosphere that just isn't there.

Problems lie elsewhere in the films characters and various subplots, especially two shoe-horned love interests in the form of 
Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain for Jack and Forest respectively, both of which feel created as a means of artificially propelling the plot and they waste the talent of both. Perhaps more of a waste is the Gary Oldman's big city gangster who has an incredibly powerful appearence but goes nowhere afterward. The film lacks an emotional core as a result of failing to really define its characters. Forest for example, its never really clear what he wants. He seems to understand the consequences of violence, yet brings violence upon himself through his own ego. As for Guy Pearce's pantomime turn as the flamboyant, monstrous city enforcer. Well his rash, violent methods are seemingly rooted in a repressed homosexuality (Cave's songs have always married violence and sexual urges,) but he stands more as the emergence of a new world born out of the prohabition era. 

As for the plethora of violence, Lawless has more than a handful of gruesome and effective sequences as one might expect from the man who brought us this scene. There is one partifular sequence that involves a man having boiling tar poured onto his back before being dumped on the Bondurant's doorstep, feathered. But the violence has no weight to it, it's all teeth but no bite. Including a terribly flat final shoot out in which characters line up their cars and start shooting at each other in plain sight. Both The Proposition and The Road included a lot of violence, but approached it from a more meditative state and whilst Lawless isn't completely void of thought, it seems that the have been given the backbench. The film does work as a companion piece to The Proposition's world of chaos, and The Road's slate-cleaning destruction. Here there is a canibalistic sense of the 'skirmish before the battle.' The old world and it's ways are destroying themselves, even in nature as much of the forest trees have been reclaimed by vines. Rakes is the first figure of the new world, ultimately destroyed by the old at the end as lawless and lawmen turn on him, but he is just the first of many. Logically, perhaps Lawless should have came second, but doesn't deny it a placement in the canon. 

Ultimately Lawless is an awkward film to place; belonging neither to the summer action flicks nor the Autumn art house/award movies. I'm sounding rather negative on the whole thing, but it's just because of the pedigree behind it and the potential the project had. So despite moments of inspiration and solid performances, I suggest waiting to see a longer cut surfaces with the DVD release in the future, because in its current state, Lawless is a rather lifeless.

    Behold, the cardigan!


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