Saturday, September 1, 2012

Lawless: Bloody Entertainment

Based on Matt Bondurant's novel about his grandfather, 'Lawless', directed by John Hilcoat and written by well known australian musician Nick Cave, focuses on the story of three bootlegger brothers during the days of the prohibition. In it set in the rural county of Franklin, Virginia, where the Bondurant brothers have acquired a sort of legend that says they are immortal.

Jason Clarke plays Howard, the older brother, who inspired the legend by being the only member of his battalion to return from WWI. The middle brother is Forrest (Tom Hardy). He is a quiet but deadly man, probably the most bad-ass person on earth. He also gets credit in inspiring his family's legend by surviving the spanish flu epidemic that killed his parents. The youngest brother is named Jack (Shia LaBeouf), who didn't inspire any part of the legend, but is a starry-eyed young man who wants to be in the moonshine business just like his brothers.

Our narrator and audience surrogate is Jack, who we spend a lot of time with as he tries to impress his brothers, as well as Mia Wasikowska, with his business abilities with the help of his friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan). Things, however, turn sour for the brothers with the arrival of ruthless Special Deputy Rakes, played by Guy Pearce in an over-the-top performance that stands somewhere between Hitler and Voldemort. This lawman is determined the stop all kinds of bootlegging going around in the county. Violence ensues as an informal war is declared between the brothers and the Deputy. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska do a serviceable job with roles that are little more than love interests for our heroes. Gary Oldman also pops up a small role as gangster Floyd Banner.

While watching 'Lawless' you get the sense that the filmmakers wanted to make a greater artistic point about violence and American History with this movie. A family saga with such overtones of americana is bound to feel rather epic in scope and themes, but after much thinking I think there is not much to 'Lawless' intellectually speaking. A case could be make for a commentary on police brutality, but Guy Pearce's character is so unashamedly and cartoonishly evil that there isn't much complexity to the matter. That is not to say the movie is bad. As an entertainment, it works very well. You can tell that the film doesn't take itself too seriously, and as a result, works as a good, entertaining story without necessarily being great art.

The production values, as well as the performances are all top-notch. The film has beautiful photography, while remaining strikingly violent and gritty. It feels like a lot of effort has been put on building the world these characters live in, which is a huge asset of the movie, making us feel like there is more to this characters' lives and stories than just what we see on screen. A good setting is a wonderful way to engage the audience and let them soak up the action. The soundtrack is equally effective in the audience's immersion in the movie. We get to listen to a lot of great music, including a terrific rootsy cover of The Velvet Underground's 'White Light, White Heat'.

I've already hinted at the one problem I have with the film a few paragraphs ago, and it is its portrayal of the heroes and the villains. I feel like there was more the filmmakers wanted to say about this moral grey area in which the brothers operate. For much of the movie they are presented as outright heroes even though they're breaking the law, just as the police is presented as an outright villain. The movie works well not dipping into this themes, but the movie is filled with so much violence that the gore starts to seem a little gratuitous.

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