Friday, September 7, 2012

Lawless

Lawless - ***


Directed by:  John Hillcoat

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 Bondurant boys.

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 development.

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 out.

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 clich√© driven inevitability of its plot.

That said this movie is still worth your time.

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