Directed by:John Hillcoat
Gangster movies have long been a Hollywood staple; from the gritty black & white Warner Bros. films starring James Cagney & Edward G Robinson of 8 decades ago to Coppola’s lush trilogy that redefined the Mafia, American audiences have flocked to see depictions of outlaws getting their “just rewards”, often morphing into folk heroes in the process. A bit of historic authenticity doesn’t hurt either…
The lush countryside of Coweta County Georgia stands in for the real Franklin County Virginia in this filmed version of “The Wettest County in the World”, a novel by Matt Boudurant that greatly fictionalizes the life of the author’s grandfather, a well-known Prohibition-era bootlegger. A host of British Commonwealth actors (Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, Tom Hardy, Noah Taylor, Jason Clarke & Mia Wasikowska) bring perfect regional tone and timber to screenwriter Nick Cave’s dialogue and the performances are, (save for Pearce’s) impressively delivered - - even that of Hollywood Golden Boy Shia LeBeouf.
Lawless traces the exploits of Forrest, Howard & Jack Boudurant, (Hardy, Clarke & LeBeouf) who combine significant distilling skills and a total distain for law enforcement in producing considerable amounts of illicit moonshine in the depths of the Depression. Forrest, the inarticulate but quietly menacing patriarch of the family, works jointly with middle-brother Howard while both seek to exclude Jack, the runt of the litter, from involving himself in the family business. Given the considerable production and distribution risks involved, the older brothers’ decision seems appropriate; Jack’s introduced as an immature rural nerd, awed by the brute physical strength of his brothers and copying their backwoods swagger only when he’s safely under their protection. But when corrupt public officials import a crooked policeman to create a state-sponsored protection racket to shelter the county’s openly illicit activities, all hell breaks loose.
Cave and director John Hillcoat (both also Australians) deliver prodigious amounts of graphic violence that provide a jarring counterpoint to the bucolic images of the lush Blue Ridge Mountains of southern Virginia while the film’s costumes & set design provide near-perfect period authenticity … so why doesn’t the whole add us to the sum of its parts, like Bonnie & Clyde or Dillinger?
Despite the quality of its individual components, Lawless has a static feel that robs the action of the tension its storyline ought to provide. Time and again, the film delivers dramatically powerful scenes that fail to flow seamlessly towards a satisfying conclusion. The result is a collection of individual vignettes that don’t gel sufficiently as they build to a disappointingly muted climax. That may be attributable to the director’s previous work in music videos and Cave’s much more extensive career as a musician; both create mood and ambiance, but fail to carry the audience to the dramatic crescendo the novel’s conclusion demands.
This episodic style isn’t helped by the movie’s inarticulate dialogue; it may make the feel of the movie more credible, but it never allows the audiences to get under the characters’ skins. What drove Forrest’s girl friend from the bright lights of Chicago to the backwoods of the Old Dominion? What explains Jack’s transformation from bumbling suitor to vengeful defender of his family? And why, in a film that strives so effectively to reconstruct the reality of rural life during the Depression, is bent-cop Guy Pearce given permission to deliver such a cartoonish, post-modern, scenery-chewing, performance as the villain?
It’s a shame these unanswered questions detract from such promising material; in the end, Lawless is a collection of interesting components that fail to satisfy.
The Verdict? Great ambiance, needless gore & intimately hollow.
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