Lawless is, like director John Hillcoat’s other films, the story of people shaped (or mirrored) by their harsh and unforgiving surroundings. A prohibition crime thriller, Lawless feels more like the story of local people fighting fiercely to resist the taming influence of more “civilised” outsiders who believe themselves inherently superior to the “dumb hicks” who have made this terrain livable. “It is not the violence that sets men apart, it’s the distance they’re willing to go,” Forrest Bondurant tells his brother at one point in the film, and Lawless seems to respect its lead characters for refusing to feign civility and to at least acknowledge the innate violence of their existence. It’s thoughtful, powerful stuff. Not without its flaws, it’s still an interesting exploration of man’s capacity for violence.
Set in Franklin County, Virginia, the audience might be forgiven for forgetting that the outside world exists. We do take a brief trip outside the countryside and into the city at one point, but it’s only fleeting. Shot at night, there’s a sense that there’s really very little of substance there – save rundown and decaying buildings… and open graves. Franklin County is connected to the outside world by a covered bridge. More than a nod to the movie’s historical setting, the bridge serves as a long, dark tunnel.
Appropriately enough, we journey through it at the beginning, and at the end. It is a very dark place, with only the slightest hint of light at the end. Those seeking to enter Franklin County from the outside must pass through darkness, as must those who would seek to depart it. The two worlds – those inside and outside – seem to stand opposed to one another, the foreign terrain inherently hostile. It is, as with a lot of Hillcoat’s film, a rather potent and effective metaphor for the conflict at the heart of the film.
“This isn’t about the money,” Forrest tells his younger brother after the family finances are put at risk. “It’s about the principle.” Although the bootlegging business and its associated income are at the heart of the ideological conflict, they are only the catalyst for this seemingly inevitable confrontation. The Bondurant family find themselves waging their own private war of independence against the big-city outsiders who arrive and attempt to dictate the rules to them. The opening sequence illustrates that the violence from the mob is already spilling over into the countryside, and the arrive of the sinister Charlie Rakes seems like a conscious attempt at expansion.
To the sophisticated modern gangsters, the Bondurant family are nothing but white trash. “You f@#!ing hicks really are a sideshow unto yourselves,” Rakes mockingly responds when warned that the bootleggers consider themselves “immortal.” To him, those “hillbillies” just need a lesson in manners. There’s a none-too-subtle implication of racism and classism at play, as Rakes suggests that the “Injun blood” running through the family’s veins might explain their “animalistic” behaviour, which seems abhorrent to him.
Nick Cave’s script has a great deal of sympathy for these characters, almost admiring the honesty of their brutality. The law in the area is either corrupt or inept, and it seems like there’s no real social order out there save the one the family creates themselves. Unlike the city slickers they face, the Bondurant boys do their own dirty work, and merely do what they have to in order to survive. There’s no comfortable “crime doesn’t pay” moral here, as Hillcoat and Cave adopt a strongly amoral stance. The Bondurant family are fighting for their survival, so their violence is justified and righteous.
There’s a sense that the community holds together, if only because the outside world offers them nothing. When his brother returns with good tidings from Floyd Banner, Forrest is dismissive. The word of an outsider means nothing. It’s implied that the community has struggled and survived on its own. Rakes cannot understand why Cricket, the local brewer, walks funny – despite the fact the clue is in the name. It seems like Cricket’s misfortune is an everyday reality in this part of the world, but not anything that city folk would have to think twice about.
The community looks out for itself. Unlike the city, it does not judge. Maggie Beauford, a dancer from Chicago, escapes to Franklin County to start a new life. She’s dismissed by Rakes as “a greasy cup” – damaged goods. However, it’s only the outsiders who pass judgment on Maggie. The Bondurant family welcome her with open arms, and give her a new life. They don’t care about what she might have done in the outside world, they seem to value her for who she is, rather than casting aspersions for any past mistakes.
In contrast, the town-dwelling gangsters come up a bit short. They are no less violent than the residents of Franklin County, but the script seems to condemn their hypocrisy. One gang lord is especially polite and courteous to the family, and the movie seems to suggest that perhaps there might be honour among thieves. This noble fantasy is brutally subverted once our heroes are out of earshot. Despite the polite facade and the self-serving justifications, the generous gesture was not one made in honour, but one of self-preservation. “Do you think I need another blood feud?” he demands of his brutal lieutenant.
Rakes himself, the dainty enforcer sent to bring the Bondurants into line, comes across as a man ill-prepared for the harsh world. He never picks a fight with anybody who might take him. He administers a brutal beating early in the film, but wears leather gloves to keep his hands clean. “Don’t touch me!” he yells as his victim feebly grasps at his suit pants. Played by Guy Pearce, Rakes is a villain that you love to hate. If he wasn’t so brutal, he’d almost be cartoonish. And yet the movie holds him in nothing but contempt – there’s no indication of respect for the man who asserts his masculinity while trying to maintain the thin veneer of civility, literally balking at any dirty work.
The residents of Franklin County immediately question his masculinity. He’s shown to possess the same base urges as everybody else, but seems more contemptible for his attempts to mask them. When his targets describe him as a “nance”, he wonders aloud why that might be. The poor resident he is conversing with answers honestly, “Because you smell funny.” Rakes hides his violent deeds in shade or behind closed doors, something that makes him much worse than the Bondurants – along with his more base motivation. (He wants money, rather than anything of moral importance.)
Naturally, Jack’s character arc sees him “corrupted” by this outside influence, the one point where Lawless feels just a little too conventional for its own good. Making a bit of money with those out-of-towners, Jack is wearing a fancy suit and driving a posh car. He has, of course, forgotten his roots. And, inevitably, there are consequences. It feels like a rather predictable plot beat for the film, and a little bit too rigid in its internal morality for a script that otherwise refuses to condemn its protagonists. It feels a little bit too cynical that somehow wearing a nice suit is a more unforgivable sin than cold-blooded dismemberment.
That said, what I think sets Lawless apart from Hillcoat’s earlier films is the fact that the grim violence is contrasted with something almost optimistic. Hillcoat doesn’t compromise when it comes to showing the lengths that men will go to. It is, in fact, quite tough to watch Lawlessat times, as people find themselves trapped within a perpetual cycle of violence. Of course, that’s how violence should be – Hillcoat never glamourises the actions of his characters, even of the Bondurant family. Their responses to attacks on their sovereignty are brutal and uncomfortable.
And yet, despite that, there’s something almost faintly hopeful about the film’s outlook. There’s almost a sense that things might be okay if the Bondurant boys can somehow endure all this. The surroundings are rough and cold and harsh, but they are also occasionally green and vital. It’s hard not to look at the images of stallions running in the fields and get a sense that the Bondurant boys just want that sort of freedom. Man’s relationship with nature is still rough in this part of the world, but it feels like something approaching an equilibrium. It stops the movie from ever seeming bleakly nihilistic as we watch the evil that men do.
There are a few problems. Hillcoat has assembled a truly impressive cast, but it’s hard to believe that Shia LaBoeuf is the best leading man that he could secure. LaBoeuf, to his credit, isn’t bad. There’s enough here to suggest that he might develop into a talent in the right hands. However, he is soundly acted off the screen by every other member of the ensemble. Although Jack really drives the plot, and has the clearest character arc, he’s never as interesting as Tom Hardy’s Forrest or Jessica Chastain’s Maggie. He’s never quite as annoying as he was when treated as scenery by Michael Bay, but it just feels as if he never quite distinguishes himself here.
There’s also the character of Bertha, played by Mia Wasikowska. Wasikowska is great, as she tends to be, but her character feels a tad… unfinished. While Bertha is clearly a secondary character, who exists to develop Jack, all the other supporting characters feel developed in their own right. Bertha, on the other hand, has a clearly plotted character arc that seems to go from “a” to “b” to “f.” Without spoiling anything, the conclusion seems to skip several vital plot beats from where we last left her. It’s a shame, because even Gary Oldman’s Floyd Banner feels like a more developed cast member, and he is barely in the film.
Still, the rest of the film is pretty great. Tom Hardy deserves special mention as Forrest, the brother holding the family together. In a way, it feels like almost a sister piece to his work on The Dark Knight Rises. He plays a nigh-unstoppable one-man-army with a strange accent who builds a legend for himself built on – in his own words – “fear.” Forrest realises that the Bondurant family is finished if their legend dies. Of course, as in the other film, there is occasionally a bit of a gap between the myth and the reality. As Maggie accuses him at one point, “You really believe your own legend, don’t you?”
However, Hardy is superb, and he’s turning into the real emerging actor of 2012, much like Michael Fassbender was in 2011. It really is a superb performance, and it’s one of the highlights of a film that is – in general – remarkably well put together. Forrest is a very stoic, very introverted character, so it takes a very special kind of actor to develop him and to give him an inner life. Hardy is quite simply wonderful in the role, and is always an absolute joy to watch.
Lawless is a pretty great piece of film-making. It’s very well put together, sophisticated, stylish and thoughtful, which already sets it apart from the herd. There are one or two problems, but nothing that’s too difficult to overlook in this insightful exploration of the things that people are capable of.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Bondurant, Chicago, Crime fiction, film, Franklin County, Franklin County Virginia, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, john hillcoat, Lawless, Matt Bondurant, Movie, Nick Cave, non-review review, r eview, shia labeouf, tom hardy, Wettest County in the World