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Lawless

Remember after THE ROAD director John Hillcoat had this movie called THE WETTEST COUNTY IN THE WORLD that was written by his THE PROPOSITION writer (and famed singer) Nick Cave, he had at-that-time-hot-stuff Shia LaBeouf signed on and everything but nobody would fund the fuckin thing. Then suddenly a mysterious benefactor named Megan Ellison comes into Hollywood and gives him money and gives P.T. Anderson money to make THE MASTER and Andrew Dominik to do KILLING THEM SOFTLY and a bunch of other guys like this. So the legends were true, there are some good rich people out there.

Anyway THE WETTEST COUNTY IN THE WORLD is the name of the book it was based on, because it’s about the Prohibition era and refers to Franklin County, Virginia and its prolific moonshiners. The book is by Matt Bondurant and is historical fiction based on the true story of his grandfather Jack Bondurant and his two brothers, who were at the center of “the Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy.” For the movie they ended up changing it to the generic, not-very-descriptive LAWLESS, maybe to fuck with the Weinsteins because they probly would’ve liked to rename some Asian movie with that. And this is weird but I think I read that Lucy Lawless gets a nickel for every DVD sold, just like Marvel Comics owns the name Hulk Hogan and Lucasfilm owns the Droid phone.

This is one of those movies that seems like it has everybody that’s in all the movies in it. So it’s Hardy, it’s Pearce, obviously Jessica Chastain is gonna be in there, plus Mia Wasikowska, Oldman, Noah Taylor, and the kid from CHRONICLE that was also in the beginning of LINCOLN, he’s probly gonna start being in everything for a while. I’m not sure where Michael Fassbender was while they were filming, seems kinda conspicuous that he missed one. But Shia LaBeouf – best known as the visionary creator of the comic book Cyclical, but also an actor –  is sort of the lead. And unfortunately it’s not the likable, self-deprecating LaBeouf of yesteryear, it’s the blowhard version he became after meeting Michael Bay and finding out that you can do that.

Pearce, Wasikowska, Taylor… alot of Australians in this one, and Hillcoat and Cave are Australian too. Even Tom Hardy is Australian in my opinion because he’s so Method I’m sure he transformed himself into one while filming FURY ROAD. But Lucy Lawless is from New Zealand, not Australia, so I don’t know what they were going for there, it doesn’t really fit.

You could compare LAWLESS to other old timey gangster movies like BONNIE AND CLYDE or PUBLIC ENEMIES or whatever. It’s got the old cars and hats and a drive by tommy gunning or two, and flashy feds with slicked back hair and all this. But the angle on the movie that’s pretty unique is that it sets the hillbillies, “some hard crackers” who are legendary for their lack of dying, as the underdog heroes. Not just side characters.

I guess in a Prohibition era movie the heroes would usually either be the G-Men or the charismatic gangsters who beat the system, flaunt their success and go out with a bang. Here you have some of those types (Oldman appears a few times as Chicago gangster Floyd Banner) and you have an ATU agent named Charlie Rakes (Pearce) as the main villain and you have a corrupt and ineffective local police force, but the heroes are basically small business men. They’re the one family of moonshiners in the county who refuse to sell out to the corrupt district attorney. Everybody else is willing to give in to the new world order where the authorities accept protection money and set the prices. Forrest Bondurant (Hardy) is too stubborn to turn his place into a Starbucks, so he respectfully puts his foot down. The other bootleggers tell him he’s crazy, there’s no way he can refuse, he’s gonna get killed. “We’ll see what happens, then,” he mumbles.

And Forrest probly could handle this, but he’s got his snot-nosed brother Jack in the mix trying to make a name for himself. He’s not tough like his brothers, but not smart either, yet more ambitious. And wants to impress a girl. Not a good combination.

Usually in a movie the young upstart would be the one that’s right. Everybody else is too short-sighted to understand his brilliant vision for the future. But he does it anyway, proves he was right, and everybody has to fall in line, scramble to keep up, or be left in the dust as he becomes Scarface or American Gangster or The Social Network through his cunning and hard work. In this one the kid goes behind Forrest’s back, makes them some money for a little bit, then fucks it all up. Dumb kid. Listen to your brother.

That the dumb asshole is the protagonist is a narritivical weakness, but giving Hardy a little distance probly makes his character even cooler. He’s obviously enjoying the accent and the mumbling, but he gets to stay quiet alot, keep his thoughts to himself until it’s time to get in somebody’s face or punch their throat with brass knuckles. (There are some pretty brutal scuffles.)

Their other brother Howard (Jason Clarke) is even more distant. Off duty he’s a jolly drunk, laughing and fooling around at campfires. During business hours he’s the muscle. In his best scene he can be heard off screen stomping through the house, the sounds of his steps approaching like a dinosaur, before tearing out the front door and beating the hell out of the sheriff for trying to squeeze their business. Forrest just stands there calmly watching.

2011-2012 MVP Jessica Chastain plays a city gal who comes to work for them, seems somewhat mysterious, and has a hard time making moves on Forrest, who shows modesty in his complete failure to pick up her signals. Scarlett Johansen and Amy Adams were previously set for this role, but don’t worry guys, I doubt they would’ve done the topless part. Chastain does alot with a pretty simple character, but they probly should’ve given her a little more to do. I guess you can’t expect some good ol’ boys to understand that.

Pearce is slimy and pretty funny as the detestable villain. He obviously puts alot of work into his hair and suits (like Jack, come to think of it). He thinks it makes him awesome, like a gangster, so he’s completely thrown off when these hicks interpret his city big shot fashion (and use of cologne) as being “dandy.”

Some day there might be a truly great bootlegging epic, and this is not it. But it’s a fun movie with some personality to it and it’s worth watching just for Hardy’s stubborn, inarticulate badass.


VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, December 3rd, 2012 at 1:19 pm and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

27 Responses to “Lawless”

  1. Yup, Tom Hardy definitely owned this one.

    I liked (MINOR SPOILER) how you could practically hear that weird goiter thing on the dude’s neck pop when he cracks him one in the throat with the knucks in that one scene.

  2. I was kinda surprised that Hardy could be this good. What I’ve seen of him in movies he hasn’t impressed me much, and in som interviews he’s come across as a bit of an asshole. Cool little movie, better that BOOTLEGGERS with Paul Koslo.

  3. This was actually one of my favorites this year. Hardy, of course, is fantastic, but I like the whole dynamic between the three brothers. There’s a lot of interesting flavor to the setting and the central dynamics of the movie which is so understated I think most people missed it. Plus, you got that great Nick Cave score.

  4. Vern, compadre, we must be on the same wavelength; I watched this last night for the first time. I’m more or less in line with you; it’s a pretty enough piece of entertainment that gets the details of the time right, but doesn’t tell a compelling enough story to really hold your interest. I confess to multitasking while it played in the background, and outside some choice bits of violence (it’s amazing what these guys can endure) I tended to zone out.

    A lot of this has to do with The Beef. The story of the littlest brother earning his place is worn out, but when done right slips over your like a broken-in pair of jeans. Comfortable, familiar, and once worn you’re glad to have them on. However, with The Beef you get those poorly woven, way too stiff and scratchy jeans that just irritate the fuck out of you, but shit you’re in public so on they stay (metaphor . . . straining–much like jeans!). I mean, it’s okay that the kid starts dumb, but does he have to stay dumb too? And if dumb, can we at least go for likable dumb? I know I’m arguing for the conventional here (young man comes into his own and earns the respect of his family and community while getting the girl), but in this case the story of the kid who starts dumb, digs into a deeper well of stupid for a bat house crazy run of luck, blows it for a girl and gets his friend killed, all before driving up and getting shot in a really dumb way, isn’t exactly working either. Sorry Beef, better luck on Cybertron.

    I did like Pierce as The Dandy. The guy’s fifty shades of mean and creepy in this, and I enjoyed every tone on display. The eyebrows, or lack there of, were an especially nice touch. Tom Hardy was also fine, although for me it was in such a anticipated way that I didn’t graft onto his performance the way I maybe should of. What I’m saying is he was a first rate badass, but I missed the little juxtapositions we’ve come to expect that make someone stick to the mind (plays the harmonica or chess, trains greased ferrets to entertain the local children in a miniature circus run out of the back of his distillery–you know, the usual).

    Final bit, I’m a big Nick Cave fan, so while the story isn’t up there with THE PROPOSITION (Or his novel, AND THE ASS SAW THE ANGEL) I did dig the score. Spare and minimal, kind of the anti-OH BROTHER WHERE OUT THOU.

  5. caruso_stalker217

    December 3rd, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    I thought The Beef did a fine job in this one. He’s really good at acting like he’s getting the shit beat out of him.

    Also, it had a shovel-to-the-head scene. Not as good as the one in PSYCHO II, but you can’t beat a good shovel to the head.

  6. I do like a good moonshinin’ picture. Like MOONRUNNERS, the inspiration for DUKES OF HAZZARD, or THUNDER & LIGHTNING with David Carradine, which was part of the same five-picture deal with Roger Corman that produced DEATH RACE 2000. I have not yet been able to track down THE MOONSHINE WAR, based on one of Elmore Leonard’s early novels, which I have read and find to be a nice transition between the westerns he started out on and the crime stories he got famous for.

    The thing I like about moonshinin’ movies is that they’re about ostensible criminals, but all they’re doing is making a product that most of us enjoy a couple times a week at least. There’s more room for stick-it-to-the-man comedy when you don’t have to think about crack babies or mafia widows. Plus you got stills exploding and old-timey pickup trucks jumping over creeks and whatnot. I’d like to see somebody bring back the genre in a less prestige format.

  7. caruso_stalker217

    December 3rd, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    Plus, they got Ralph Stanley to sing Captain Beefheart and Lou Reed songs for the movie. Good work, filmatists!

  8. I’m sorry to say that Shia LaBeouf is really coming off as a “trying too hard” guy these days, it’s more than a little sad

  9. Yeah, he’s definitely reaching lately. But can you blame him? He doesn’t seem like an idiot. He knows that he got ridiculously famous for doing not one single thing of any substance whatsoever. He’s gotta know his deal with the devil is almost over, and he’s gotta do something that succeeds because of his input and not just because it’s a franchise product that he happens to be in. Some potential flash-in-the-pans handle this period of transition with grace (DiCaprio) and some flail around like a fish, making things even worse. I don’t actually mind LaBeouf (I like to think that he made himself ridiculously unlikeable in TF3 on purpose, which I find admirable) but he needs to relax and find some middle ground between what he wants to do and what he’s been doing. Whipping his dick out won’t instantly make him Harvey Keitel.

  10. Jessica Chastain was Most Vertical Primate in 2011 – 2012?

  11. I agree that LaBeuf’s reach far exceeds his grasp, but at least he’s trying for something. His character is kind of unflattering in this movie, which is a smart move. I like the fact that he’s gone from major blockbusters to playing the runt of the litter. It actually helps that you’re not supposed to think he’s the “cool” one.

    I generally agree with Vern’s assessment on this film. It’s a solid picture with some finely wrought badassery, but it still feels as if it should have been better. Part of it might have been expectation. Going in I thought the movie would be more of a prestigious period piece, but instead it turned into a trashy nostalgia piece with an uneven tone. If I had known beforehand that the film was just going to provide some real carnage mixed in with some unconvincing drama, then I could ignore some of the drama and enjoy the carnage even more. Still, I’m excited for what Hillcoat does next, and I hope he brings Nick Cave along with him.

  12. Megan Ellison and Alpurna Pictures have been a huge benefit to cinema. God bless her. (I think she might have backed Kathryn Bigelow’s ZERO DARK THIRTY too.) However, as Tom Shone said, she really should have cracked the whip a little harder over P.T. Anderson. Now there was a project that could only have benefited from some executive interference.

    There aren’t a whole lot of good moonshine movies–I’m not sure THUNDER ROAD really counts, no matter how awesome it is. As an aside, but on a related topic, for me the most enjoyable Great Depression / outlaw / tommy gun film is still John Milius’ 1973 DILLINGER.

  13. Somebody screwed the pooch when they cast this one. How hard would it have been to hand off the role of Jack Bondurant to Dane DeHaan (the antagonist kid from Chronicle, who has a small role here as LaBeouf’s sidekick Cricket Pate), and bump LaBeouf altogether? If Hillcoat wanted to make a serious movie and/or one that audiences would take seriously, he should’ve known better than to factor LaBeouf into the equation.

    My other issue is with Guy Pearce’s character. Was he written that way, or did Pearce go the dandy route just to try something different? (and frankly, his character wasn’t just foppish; he was downright prissy). I did “get” that one scene in Pearce’s hotel room, when we see a fully nude woman sitting on his bed: Hillcoat doesn’t want us to mistake him for gay, and (perhaps) link that to his sadistic behavior. Very PC move there. Still, IMO the whole dandy thing was a pisspoor way to define his character. It’s distracting and adds nothing to the movie.

    The more I see of Tom Hardy, the more impressed I am by him, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what makes him such a compelling actor. Can’t wait to see what he brings to Mad Max: Fury Road.

  14. Larry — actually I read that Pearce wanted to play the character that way, and Hillcoat/Cave changed him from a redneck local (which he was in real life and in the original script) to a prissy city boy so Pearce would take the part. I’m not sure the movie is implying he’s gay — I think Vern correctly identifies the conflict as one between the fancy city life (where Pearce probably looks cool) and his imposition of himself on country folk, where he looks ridiculous.

    My biggest complaint about the movie is the unwelcome narration which butts in from time to time to tell us things which should be told visually and, in fact, should already be obvious. Not sure what that was about. Cave is too good and too sparse a writer to have thought that was a good idea, so I can only assume it was stuffed in there to cut the runtime down (I bet a longer cut of this movie is closer to the classic it wants to be) or maybe at the studio’s request.

  15. This is the first time I’ve heard of Jessica Chastain, so could you explain why she’s MVP 2011-2012?

  16. SDAL: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1567113/

    She’s been busy woman of late, and certainly diverse.

  17. “This is the first time I’ve heard of Jessica Chastain, so could you explain why she’s MVP 2011-2012?”

    because she showed her boobs in this movie, which in case you haven’t noticed, has become pretty rare for A-list actresses

  18. Empire magazine had a piece on this and regarding the title, Nick Cave explained that at first they wanted to call it “The Wettest County” but there was some concern that it might be made fun of as it sounded too much like “The Wettest Cunt”. No, not making this up…

  19. SDAL – I hadn’t heard of her either but then all the sudden she was great in that iffy movie THE HELP, and was in TREE OF LIFE, and TAKE SHELTER, and CORIALANUS, and this, and starring in the new Kathryn Bigelow (which she’s apparently great in), and the Guillermo del Toro production MAMA… she just keeps popping up and always seems to be good in totally different roles.

  20. It’s not a nice thing to say, but the sound of Jessica Chastain’s name annoys me for any reason. It sounds like the name of a fictional Shakespeare actress in a bad sitcom. If she and Benedict Cumberbatch ever make a movie together, I hope their names aren’t said out loud in the trailer.

  21. Noah Taylor is also a good singer, though he pretty much looks and sounds like a shaggier Nick Cave. I still need to see this movie.

  22. The folk cover of Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” is absolutely killer. Even though the film is a little uneven, that cover is worth the price of admission alone.

  23. What the fuck was Gary Oldman doing in this? He’s in like two scenes to never be heard from again. I like the idea of ditching The Beef’s part altogether in this one. Jessica is drop dead gorgeous and apparently going to be the next big female moviestar. Or at least get the big time job offers.

    Good film but like with Killing them… could have been much better. Can’t put my finger on why but it could have been much better.

  24. Thanks for sharing a bit of wisdom about what went into making Lawless, you had me cracking up. I haven’t watched it yet because I keep hearing different things about the movie itself. Some of my coworkers at DISH, and even my brother, saw it and they ALL said that the script limited some of the actors from reaching full potential. I noticed that it’s been available to stream through the Blockbuster @Home app on my DISH Hopper, but I haven’t felt like taking a plunge into yet. I think I’ll give it a chance since I can easily click on it and watch it without having to get out of my PJs. Thanks!

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