Of the movies of 2012 I’ve seen so far, few have put together such a surplus of promising raw materials as Lawless, nor wasted them as egregiously. I'm no big fan of director John Hillcoat: whilst he has a minatory gift for creating and sustaining a fetid physical atmosphere, his grip on dramatic pace and perspective are weak, as evinced by the two films of his I’ve seen, To Have and To Hold (1997) and The Proposition (2005). Both bored me eventually with their mix of murky yet shallow psychological dramatics and witless carnality, spiced with occasional outbreaks of obnoxious brutality. The Proposition was particularly, astonishingly over-rated, a clichéd neo-Western in all regards but location, but it gained notice for Hillcoat’s attention-seeking use of violence, the relative unfamiliarity of the setting, and the marquee cast. Oh, and hipster deity Nick Cave wrote the entirely unremarkable, poorly developed script. Hillcoat’s prestige adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2009) passed me by. But Lawless has a strong pedigree, a potentially engaging story and setting, and to be fair it starts promisingly, as it reunites Hillcoat and Cave, working this time from a novel by Matt Bondurant, purportedly based on his family history. The film depicts a war between the independent moonshiners of Franklin County, Virginia, with the increasing power of big city mobs, who take control of the local law enforcement.
The Bondurants are the biggest swinging dicks in the county thanks to eldest brother Forrest’s (Tom Hardy) reputation for invincibility, having survived the Great War, and he and second brother Howard (Jason Clarke) are two-fisted sons of the soil. Youngest whelp Jack (Shia LaBoeuf) lacks any sign of developing the macho bulk and physical potency of his brothers, who patronise him, but he begins following the well-blazed trail of Michael Corleone after Forrest is temporarily knocked out of action by a slight case of having his throat cut. Trouble blows into the county, first in the form of a bob-haired woman from the big smoke, Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), who asks Forrest for a job tending bar in his seamy speakeasy, and then the more overtly alarming person of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). An enforcer with a veneer of law enforcement legitimacy, Rakes represents shadowy syndicate powers trying to force all of the moonshiners to sign on to a monopoly supply chain, having easily annexed the local cops. Forrest tells him where to go, precipitating a tit for tat struggle for loyalty of the other moonshiners, with Jack beaten bloody by Rakes in an attempt to provoke the other brothers into action. But Forrest demurs, and after he is badly injured and Maggie raped by some of Rakes’ goons, Jack decides to take a chance and, with the aid of his nervous, crippled pal Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan) who has a gift for engineering, he begins selling hooch to bootlegger Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), outwitting and outracing Rakes.
Lawless can blame its cloddishly flat title on someone in an executive suite who decided that “The Wettest County in the World”, the source novel’s name, was too likely to make people think the film was about parochial meteorologists. The rest of this misbegotten mess can only be blamed on the filmmakers. Lawless works through just about every regulation motif and worn-ragged situation in the gangster genre, without inspiration or effective purpose. Hillcoat and Cave display a lack of basic craft as they fail to introduce characters with specificity, with the Bondurants surrounded by a free-floating collective of glowering crackers, and ideas that ought to possess a flash of pulpy brilliance, like covering The Velvet Underground’s hard drug paean ‘White Light/White Heat’ as a bluegrass foot-stomper, resolutely fails to connect proto-punk attitude with period grit, because the utterly ordinary filmmaking communicates only half-hearted prestige flick pretences. Pearce’s performance as Rakes strikes the right jarring note of violence incarnate as a jazz-baby Droog with hair so greasy it could be a BP spill and shaved eyebrows, moved to volatile demonstrations whenever his personal space is violated. But Rakes never really progresses beyond a showy screenwriting collection of tics and traits, except to serve as a hiss-worthy bad guy. Hillcoat only seems to focus when violence is the matter at hand, and he leans on visceral effect, like the sight of Hardy’s neck with a second grin spitting blood, a sack of severed testicles, or Rakes and his goons pouring hot molasses over a sundry victim, to give juice to a narrative that otherwise, by its tired and incompetently staged conclusion, totally loses cohesion.
I’ve seen duller, more expedient romantic interludes as those featured here, but I can’t remember when. They swerve from the numbingly coy, between Forrest and Maggie, to the patently irritating, in those between Jack and Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), whose father is a preacher for an oddball Baptist sect. I could desperately have used a remote control to speed through the repetitions of LaBeouf trying out his smarmy anti-charm on the pasty pretty whilst glancing about nervously for her hirsute zealous papa. Chastain is so underserved in her part, trying to put heat into her exchanges with Hardy that the pathetically written role doesn’t justify, that wasted doesn’t begin to describe her situation. The script has the gall to serve up a late moment in which Maggie confronts Forrest, for one of those scenes where the woman begs her man not to go and risk his life, representing for Hillcoat and Cave a desperate stab at giving the couple’s relationship substance, and offering another perspective to the drawling machismo the film otherwise gets completely off on. There’s a nugget of possibility in the study of Jack’s status as the weak member of the herd in a culture that only respects brute force, hitting a strong note of vulnerability and fear as Rakes picks him out and beats the hell out of him to chip away at the edges of the Bondurants' communal self-possession, and even the titanic Forrest proves vulnerable to dirty tricks. But the film plays out its urine-strength Godfather variation, with patriarch swapped for older brother as the wounded titan whom the runt must prove himself heir to, and WASP princess exchanged for Bertha as an emissary of another uptight subculture.
Oldman’s presence as Banner is only explicable in light of the Weinsteins’ penchant for stuffing movies with name actors to give them more Oscar night gravitas. Banner is introduced with striking, Peckinpah-esque bravado as Jack is privy to the sight of him tommy gunning a pursuing car. But Banner proves to be only a plot mechanism, one who clangs an employee over the head with a shovel only because it’s been more than five minutes since the last time someone got hit in the film. To say that Hardy sleepwalks his way through his role as the lumpen, sullen Forrest is again an understatement. He’s supposed to smoulder with low-key strength and potential saurian ferocity, but he was more persuasively, erotically menacing wearing that stupid gas mask in The Dark Knight Rises, and after his early, amusing confrontation with Rakes which sees the two men threatening each-other and neither quite realising how dangerous the other is, he steps back into a narrative irrelevance which the film never recovers from. There are hints throughout Lawless that Hillcoat wanted to follow up The Road with a story essayed in a similarly Cormac McCarthy-esque attitude regarding violent situations in a primal, inhuman dimension, as one facet of modern existence still rooted in unfiltered pre-verbal, pre-moral, prehistoric experience, rather than standard melodrama. The film similarly makes gestures throughout towards a demystification of alpha male posturing, as suggested by Forrest’s bleary, mumbling disquiet after he’s nearly killed, and the revelations about the night of that attack, in which Maggie’s willingness to put the past behind her proved more durable than Forrest’s legend.
Such is a theme worth engaging, but the film lacks any fundamental radical fire in attacking this backwoods patriarchal, self-serving violent mindset, considering that its focus on the independent, self-willed Bondurants cannot help but elevate them, as one part proto-Tea Party naysayers, and one part gangster rap demimonde deities. Rakes is such a wretched villain that he becomes a mad dog everyone feels by the end needs to be put down, and the audience is never really called upon to ponder whether Forrest’s decision to fight him was unreasonable. The failure is less thematic than dramatic, considering that a film like Bring Me the Head of Alfred Garcia (1974) long ago did the same things, and better. The lack of precision and intensity to the way Lawless plays out is all too obvious. Basic exposition is weak throughout, and significant elements of the plot are infuriatingly hazy, like who exactly is running the operation that Rakes is the sharp end of and what Banner knows about it all, and Rakes’ immediate superior, another faux-lawman, Mason Wardell (Tim Tolin), remains so vaguely described that when his arrest is mentioned at the end, it only registers with the question, “Who?” More importantly, the film never significantly engages with its characters, except for Jack, and he’s about as interesting as a toadstool, particularly once he starts getting cocky as his and Cricket’s dipshit enterprising gains traction. As is so often the case in films where the makers have lost all idea of how to piece together what they’ve shot, significant dimensions and developments to the story are dismissed in voiceover during montage sequences, whilst the most potentially entertaining scene, a Thunder Road-esque backwoods car chase as Jack and Cricket elude Rakes, speeds by half-noticed. Even Hillcoat’s strengths in evoking atmosphere are hollowed out: in place of a real feel for the time and locale, pieces of self-amused fancy, like Jack’s inebriated visit to Bertha’s oddball congregation, flit by without sense, grit, or weirdness. The finale spirals into a shoot-out where nobody, least of all the filmmakers, really knows what they’re doing, with Pearce allowed to descend into ridiculous, anachronistic ranting. Finally Lawless sputters to a dead stop with a postscript so clumsy in its tying up the narrative that I was left wondering why I’d just wasted nearly two hours of my life.