September 1, 2012

Movie Review: Lawless (2012)

Lawless is a movie that, for some unknown reason, I kept mixing up with Gangster Squad. I don't know why, hey are clearly quite different movies. Whatever the case may be, Lawless is now in theaters and I should, theoretically be able to differentiate the two now. Lawless is a Depression-era movie that is based on the true story of a trio of bootlegging brothers, bucking Prohibition and making a boat load of cash in the process. It doesn't hurt they were located on the nation's wettest county where law enforcement was more than willing to help move the moonshine.

I cannot recall seeing all that many movies dealing with Prohibition, but this one likely stands out from the crowd. Usually when I think of the era, I think of more city based locations with alcohol being snuck through back doors or through the underground, paired with wild parties and police raids. Lawless gives a different view, it takes out to the countryside moonshiners, where the mountains light up like fireflies from the stills each night.

The Bondurant brothers operate a successful operation and are living legends, said to be invincible. It is a legend they, at least heir eldest brother, seem to buy into. The trio are made up of Howard (Jason Clarke), Forest (Tom Hardy), and the youngest is Jack (Shia Labeouf). Everything goes well for them until Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives from Chicago, bringing with him a whole new level of corruption.

Rakes shows up and wants a piece of the pie. Forest wants nothing of it and this sets off a war between the brothers and Rakes' crew. It turns violent and bloody as the ante keeps getting upped. It doesn't help that Jack is trying to make a name for himself and get out of Forest's long shadow and prove he is a man and can handle himself. There is also the female influence, felt by the preacher's daughter (Mia Wasikowska) who catches Jack's eye, and Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a newcomer from Chicago who takes a Jon working for Forest.

Lawless is a pulpy, violent movie that survives on its look and it's performances. Yes, the story is interesting, but I cannot say I ever felt all that caught up in it. It remains in the surface pulp, never really digging in. It is almost like it is caught between cinematic worlds. On one side it is trying to be an intelligent look into a bootlegging war, a pseudo-Oscar type, a pretender of you will. On the other side, it revels in its violence, wanting to cash in some late summer action chips. It works a little on both sides, but never completely as either.

The movie looks fantastic. He screen is painted in browns and greys, shadows dance on the screen, smoke rises from the ground, the flames of the stills burn bright. There is no denying that director John Hillcoat (The Road, The Proposition) and director of photography Benoit Delhomme have made one fine looking movie that moves along at a good pace.

I think what I liked most about the movie were the performances, they were not what I expected for this sort of movie. Shia Labeouf delivers a solid performance as the ambitious Jack, this is a good step to get away from his horrible work I'm the Transformers movies. However, so far as the brothers go, it is Tom Hardy as Forest who steels the show. He is a man of few words, often just grunting, moving through the scenes in a matter of fact fashion. The performance was really quite good, a quietly charismatic monster. On the other side of the coin Guy Pearce is deliciously over the top as vain and vile Rakes. A controlling man who who will go to all lengths to get what he wants.

Lawless is a good but not great movie hat gives a surface look at the era through the eyes of some of those who were intimately involved, the movie is based on the book written by Matt Bondurant, grandson and grandnephew to the brothers on he film. The performances are fun, the violence was a plus, and it is nicely shot. The problem is I never felt any genuine emotional involvement, the women are little more than cardboard cutouts, and everything seemed to be content to wade in the shallow end.

It is worth seeing, but it certainly could have been stronger. If surface is what you want, entertainment over drama, this is for you. This not necessarily a bad thing, I think I just wanted a bit more. Man, it is hard to make that not sound like a big put down... See it.


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