Starring: Shia Lebeouf, Tom
Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman
Review: Legends from the past
seem to continue to grow and grow the further away we get. When stories were only passed by word of
mouth and little more, it was like a generational game of telephone. What started as a big fish, then becomes the
biggest fish. With nobody around to
disprove you other than those that witnessed (who were usually helping the
legend grow), things could easily get to the point where it’s hard to tell
fiction from fact. The excellent and
underrated movie ‘Big Fish’ explored this to its fullest extent. Even bringing in the possibility that in our
current day and age truth could be stranger than legend and the more true it is
the harder it might be to believe.
The way we live today with camera
phones, facebook, twitter, and the 24-hour news cycle that churns stories out,
wears them out, and moves on, there is no such thing as legend anymore. For every story that tries to get built up,
there is somebody out there to pull it down.
Part of this is good as it reveals the humanity in all the many things
we used to hold higher than ourselves.
The other part isn’t so good as it tarnishes the legends we already have
and doesn’t allow any new ones to grow and take their place. Which begs the question, what happens to
legends when they die?
This is an idea that has been
obsessed over by the Neil Gaiman. In his
book ‘American Gods’ he delves into the idea of gods used in religions that are
no longer practiced. It is a widely held
belief by many, especially in the atheist sect (not to call Mr. Gaiman an
atheist as I do not know him personally nor have any insight into his personal
belief system), that the power that any ‘gods’ or legends hold is only the
power we give them via our beliefs. So
when people stop believing in them those gods no longer have power. Yet, once something is believed into
existence, failure to believe doesn’t negate it. As once powerful gods, these now powerless
beings must try to find their way in the world.
In his comic book epic ‘The
Sandman’ Gaiman explores this to a lesser extent, but still focuses on legends,
stories, and at their basest level ideas that get passed on and stay
alive. His protagonist Dream of the
endless rules the realm of dreams and stories.
It’s an important concept as part of humanity and the inherent human
condition. We all need dreams, we all
need stories, they don’t just give their protagonists power, they give us power
to understand one another and ourselves.
While ‘Lawless’ never quite
delves this deep into the literary sense of a ‘legend’ they do hit on this
topic and it’s a central theme to the film.
Lebeouf, Hardy, and Clarke play the Bondurant boys, themselves a topic
of local legend. Through one form or
another they garnered a reputation as invincible. Between surviving the Great War, and being
the fiercest bootleggers around, the Bondurant boys, and by consequence
everyone around them, began to believe that they could control their own
destiny. No outcome occurred without
their consent and they often dictated how most would turn out.
These three brothers had carved
out a solid little life for themselves up in their mountain hideaway.
Their legend grew, their business grew, and
rarely were they bothered with any type of real world problems. Alas, the prohibition era of America was
wrought with corruption and sleeping dogs were never quite allowed to lie.
Enter Charlie Rakes (Pearce), a
prohibition agent brought in from Chicago to help clean up the mountain
areas. Of course, his first order of
business was to ally himself with the local district attorney and grease the
wheels of the moonshine business the local folks had running. While they never had to worry about payoffs
before, this one was necessary and most easily agreed. That is, most except for the legendary
With their refusal to accept the
proposed arrangement and their legend looming as a challenge, Rakes decides to
torment this family and everyone that is dear to them. Pearce with his intentionally dyed jet black
hair and ridiculously overtop, yet somehow still fun Chicago accent, wages the
war of a power hungry agent with the fuse of a two year old throwing a tantrum
for not getting what he wants. As a
caricature Pearce reminds one of Groucho Marx crossed with a little flavor of
Michael Chiklis’ character from The Shield, a reckless corrupt agent of the law
who not only acts irreprehensible but relishes in it every day.
A third party involved in all of
this is the gangster Floyd Banner played by Gary Oldman, who seemingly exists
to give the Bondurant clan money and chew up some scenery. There is a slight bit of idolatry going on
between Jack (LeBeouf) and the slick pinstripe-suited gangster Banner, but that
is a thread that is presented and used as a plot device more than for character
Despite the somewhat out of
place feeling of Banner, the story moves along at quite the taut pace and we
begin to wonder if maybe the legends are true.
Maybe these three brothers control their destiny the likes of which
nobody has ever seen. Then again, maybe
they just look at the world differently. Instead of letting things happen to them perhaps they are some of the
few to be the ones who act upon the world and let everyone else react to
them. Then they could be fitting of the
legendary reputation they had garnered.
Spliced within the drama and
hyper violence (and I do mean hyper), there are a couple love stories. As their business starts doing well Jack
decides he wants to use his newfound wealth to court the preacher’s daughter
from town. The other brothers shake
their heads, specifically Forrest (Hardy), but let him go, as business is
good. After all, Forrest has his own
love issues to wrangle with as the woman that works in their general store,
Maggie (Chastain), has taken a noticeable interest in him and he in her.^
^Such a reserved man is Forrest
that he simply watches her somewhat longingly while never making a move. Perhaps in his assumed role as the group’s
patriarch he would see it as a sign of weakness to show an emotion as
vulnerable as love. Whether that is the
case is not doesn’t matter as his decision is made for him when Maggie removes
all of her clothing and slowly, sexily walks to Forrest’s room (where he sleeps
on a mattress on the ground no less), and forces his hand, quite
literally. This scene proving two
things, that Forrest did have the feelings for her he was seemingly trying to
hide, and Jessica Chastain with no clothes and little makeup has a pure beauty
that can be a force of nature.
Events eventually spin out of
control and head towards the great climax and shoot out that any gangster movie
must have. If there is a fault to
Lawless, despite it’s very interesting characters and setting, it’s the somewhat
predictable nature in which events occur.
This story was apparently loosely based on true events that happened to
the actual Bondurant boys so there is a certain limitation of source material
in the natural outcome of events. Even
still, I couldn’t help but have little concern in how the events would turn
What most kept me intrigued were
the excellent cast and the characters themselves that all had separate
motivations, both relevant and non-relevant, which made them sympathetic and
likeable. It says something about a
character and the talent of the filmmakers when you are rooting for a man to
pull the trigger of a gun and kill somebody more-or-less in cold blood, even if
the killing is justified on some level.
So much of gun fights and fights in general are based on what a man can
or cannot do. More precisely, based on
what a man believes the other will or won’t do.
Part of the legend of the Bondurant boys is that nobody can predict what
they will do next, which is what makes them so scary.
While the characters on screen portrayed
the essence of that fear, the audience didn’t quite have the same feeling. It is for this reason that the film wasn’t
able to hit directly on all cylinders.
While still quite enjoyable, with an impeccable cast all greatly acting
their parts, the movie is held back from greatness by the mildly cliché driven
inevitability of its plot.