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Film review: Lawless***
Rural Virginia, the early 1930s. A party of African-Americans, in the days before they were African-Americans (we’ve already seen a sign reading “White” on a drinking fountain) are holding an all-night wake for a dead comrade – and there’s the corpse in the middle, standing up in his coffin with a cigarette clamped between his dead lips. A little later, we’re in a church where a very strict sect are holding a service; “If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him!” pronounces the pastor – then the men step forward and wash the feet of the women, and vice versa. Later still, a blind old woman sits on her porch, knitting grimly (how?) through a pair of dark glasses. Please excuse her, says her nephew to a visiting stranger, “she ain’t right in the head”.
None of those details have anything to do with the main plot of Lawless – but they, and others like them, may explain why such a conventional project comes with such a strong pedigree. The reason why it’s in Cyprus cinemas is of course Shia LaBeouf, and he’s good (or good enough) – but it also played in Competition at Cannes and it’s written by Nick Cave, the godlike Australian rock star who previously worked with director John Hillcoat on the Down-Under Western The Proposition. Easy to imagine that Cave read the historical novel (The Wettest County in the World) by Matt Bondurant, chuckled over details like the corpse with the cigarette in its mouth, and thought ‘I need to put that in a movie!’.
Not so easy to imagine that Cave (or anyone) was enthused by the actual plot, a chronicle of Bondurant’s own grandfather and great-uncles who were bootleggers during Prohibition, making moonshine whisky which they mostly sold to friends and neighbours (including the local sheriff). Lawless is a tale of David and Goliath, the Bondurant brothers being small-timers, “hauling stuff around in our beat-up jalopies,” as Jack Bondurant (LaBeouf) puts it in the voice-over. They’re several leagues below the likes of Al Capone, and they’re also no match for the dirty lawmen who muscle in on the local scene, forcing bootleggers to give them a cut or else – but the Bondurants stand up to them, partly because they believe themselves to be indestructible. Howard (Jason Clarke) was the sole survivor when his whole platoon drowned in WW1; Jack survived the great influenza epidemic of 1918; Forrest (Tom Hardy) gets his throat slit halfway through the movie – then gets up, his hands sealing the lips of the gaping wound, and walks 12 miles to the nearest hospital.
That, at least, is the legend. In fact, though he can’t remember it, Forrest’s life was saved by Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a former dancer looking to escape the city life – and self-delusion is by far the most interesting aspect of Lawless. The brothers think they’re invincible, but they’re just a bunch of lucky hicks. Jack plays at being gangster, riding fast cars and having his photo taken in snappy suit and fedora. Indeed, the villain of the piece – Guy Pearce as Special Deputy Rakes, a dandyish sadist with no eyebrows and his hair neatly parted in the middle – may be the only character without self-delusion. I don’t like you very much, snarls the sheriff; “Not many do,” replies Rakes without missing a beat.
Lawless doesn’t really develop that, though. It’s surprisingly shallow for such a prestigious movie, siding blandly with the brothers and seemingly content to be a vivid (and often violent) period jape. Rakes is a bad man, and a racist besides (these rural folk are part Injun, he says, that’s why they’re so “animalistic”); Jack is brash, Forrest tough, Howard a bit psychotic – but they’re good men, and there’s no hint of mockery in depicting their macho aggression as there was in the far superior Killing Them Softly. Speaking of which, there are now two movies at the local multiplex which (a) played in Competition at Cannes, (b) have an almost all-male cast, and (c) feature a lengthy scene where a man is beaten up in full graphic detail, finished off in this case by Rakes daintily taking off his white glove, soiled by the blood on his knuckles.
That’s another memorable detail – and the details are what make Lawless worthwhile, plus a clutch of fine performances (though Hardy’s baby-faced-thug routine is starting to get just a touch over-exposed). A silhouetted shoot-out in a tunnel. A dance hall, and a line of rather matronly ladies dancing with their hands on their hips. Forrest’s point of view as he lies on the ground with his throat cut, looking at the full moon on a snowy night. Jessica Chastain walking down a dim moonlit corridor, naked as the day she was born. Above all, a quick throwaway shot of two macho cocks squaring up to each other in the Bondurants’ front yard, the birds locked in combat, bumping feathers and squawking loudly. For better or worse (mostly worse), that’s Lawless in a nutshell.
DIRECTED BY John Hillcoat
STARRING Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain
US 2012 116 mins