Thursday, August 30, 2012

In Theaters: LAWLESS (2012)

(US - 2012)

Directed by John Hillcoat.  Written by Nick Cave.  Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke, Dane DeHaan, Noah Taylor, Lew Temple, Bill Camp, Tim Tolin.  (R, 116 mins)

Director John Hillcoat and musician/screenwriter Nick Cave previously collaborated on the viscerally brutal 2006 western THE PROPOSITION and reunite for this adaptation of Matt Bondurant's novel The Wettest County in the World.  Bondurant's book was loosely based on the Prohibition-era bootlegging experiences of his grandfather Jack and his two great-uncles Howard and Forrest Bondurant, who ran a major moonshine operation in Franklin County, Virginia.  LAWLESS has a lot of the same grim, stomach-turning violence that made THE PROPOSITION so memorable, but as a whole, it's not quite as good.  It wants to be a 1930s gangster version of THE PROPOSITION, but it has commercial obligations to fulfill, and it's not as well-constructed, with a propensity for corny one-liners and implausible characterization, and a villain who's ultimately too over-the-top for his own good.   It's certainly an entertaining film, but it often feels like its issues stemmed more from the editing and not the writing.  THE PROPOSITION was a great film, while LAWLESS is merely a good one.

Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf as
two of the Bondurant brothers
In 1930-31 Franklin County, the moonshining Bondurant brothers--Howard (Jason Clarke), the oldest; Forrest (Tom Hardy), the middle brother and the leader/brains of the operation; and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the youngest and most eager to make his mark--are doing well until the local prosecutor brings in Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a Chicago-based "Special Deputy" who's not there to clean up the operation, merely to help himself and the prosecutor profit from it.  They want their cut and the Bondurants aren't going to budge.  In between the war with the corrupt lawmen, Forrest gets involved with Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a former Chicago dance-hall girl who needed to get away to a quiet life and lands a job at the Bondurants' general store, and Jack courts local Amish girl Bertha (Mia Wasikowska).  One of the film's biggest problems is the paper-thin characterization of the women.  Yes, it's a film about men and their guns, but whether by Cave's scripting or the assembling of the film, Maggie and Bertha are both very ill-defined and not very believable.  Wasikowska, especially, is saddled with a character that just never seems real: the flirty, sassy Amish girl "who always had a rebellious streak in her," according to Jack.

Guy Pearce as the evil Charlie Rakes
Hardy's performance is strange but effective.  He plays Forrest as a very quiet, withdrawn type who's prone to bursts of savage violence when pushed, and he seems a lot like Nick Nolte, but with more grunting.  LaBeouf, who often comes off as, well, a total douche both onscreen and off, does some of his best work and it's a case of Hillcoat using LaBeouf's persona and/or limitations to the film's advantage.  Jack is a cocky, inexperienced, and occasionally arrogant whippersnapper who often seems in over his head, and LaBeouf embodies that perfectly.  It's similar to how everyone said Josh Hartnett was too bland a leading man for THE BLACK DAHLIA, when in fact, it as an inspired move by Brian De Palma where the character's flaws and weaknesses matched the audience's perception of the actor (Hartnett's casting was one of the few successful things about that film).  I haven't been a fan of LaBeouf in the past, but with LAWLESS and his recent casting in Lars Von Trier's next project, he seems to be taking steps toward being Taken Seriously, and he does a very solid, credible job here.  Gary Oldman has a small role as dapper big-city mobster Floyd Banner, who forms an uneasy alliance with Jack when it means taking on Rakes.  Which brings us to Guy Pearce as Charlie Rakes.  With his jet-black hair slicked back and his eyebrows shaved, sporting a bow-tie and dress gloves, too much cologne, and a broad Chicago accent through pursed lips, the prissy, sneering Rakes gives Pearce the kind of despicable, over-the-top bad guy that actors love to sink their teeth into.  Make no mistake, Pearce makes Rakes a memorably sadistic villain, but ultimately, it's the kind of villain that doesn't really belong in this movie, and by the end, he's too much of a cartoon, spouting the kind of snarky one-liners that seem more akin to a blockbuster action movie than a 1930s period piece.  This doesn't make it a bad movie, but no matter how much fun Pearce is to watch here--and he is a blast--these issues keep it from rising to the level of THE PROPOSITION.  I guess it's an issue of finding the right tone and staying consistent, and neither Hillcoat nor Cave are as disciplined on this project as they were on their last one.

Gary Oldman as big-time gangster Floyd Banner
THE PROPOSITION is known for its often shocking violence, and Hillcoat and Cave certainly maintain consistency in that area.  Whether it's Jack getting a savage beating from Rakes, or various throat slicings, bullets through flesh, shovels to the head, or Rakes getting a gift-wrapped package containing the severed testicles of one of his flunkies, LAWLESS has no shortage of wince-inducing violence and gore.  Also returning from the previous Hillcoat/Cave collaboration is cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, who brings the same kind of visually stunning beauty to drab, dusty surroundings, with the imagery matched perfectly to the rustic score by Cave and Warren Ellis, with vocal contributions from Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Mark Lanegan.  LAWLESS is not without problems, and it falls short of being a new classic of gangster cinema, but it's well-made, looks great, has good performances, and is much better than most of the studio product that normally gets dumped in theaters around Labor Day.

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