Thursday, August 30, 2012

Lawless [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  Roger Ebert (2 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

It would be tempting to dismiss Lawless (directed by John Hillcoat, screenplay by Nick Cave based on the novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant) as an right-wing American Presidential election year propaganda piece.

The chief villain of the story, set in rural Franklin County, Virginia ("moonshine country") during the Prohibition Era is a thoroughly greasy and corrupt "Special Agent" Charlie Rakes (played by Guy Pearse) sent ostensibly "by the Government" to "wrap up" the operations of the "down home" Franklin County bootleggers "just tryin' to make a living."  Actually, he seems to have been sent there more "on behalf of the Chicago Outfit" (think Al Capone) to shake them down.  Then, when he gets there he seems to take a "likin'" to local "African American hookers" ... You get the picture ... Is this film really set in the 1920s or in a paranoid fantasy of a present day Obama-hating (who, after all, is mixed race, pro-government, or at least not "anti-government," even democratically elected government, and from Chicago ...) fatigue clad white supremacist with an axe to grind?  (The film is actually based on the historical novel given above ... but of all the possible novels to be made into a film, why _this one_, and _why now_?  "Well, Virginia ... it's an election year" ... And there's also a thoroughly anti-Iranian film called Argo [2012] in Hollywood's pipeline set to come out in the fall "just in time to prepare us" for the coming conflict there).

That said, readers of this blog will also know that I've consistently trashed viciously stereotypical portrayals of "hicks" in Hollywood films (Straw Dogs [2011], Killer Joe [2012] or say nothing of Shark Night [2011]) while giving good reviews of films that lampooned the awful stereotype (Tucker and Dale vs Evil [2010]) or at least tried to offer a more complex (if at times troubled) portrayal of contemporary rural life in the United States (Hick [2012]).

Further, if the current film, Lawless, wasn't being released 2 months before an American presidential election and the villain (from the current President's hometown, and arguably _my_ own hometown) wasn't painted in such an over-the-top, thoroughly greasy/slimy stereotypical way, I'd probably be more positively disposed to it as well (and I'm giving it 2 1/2 stars, not exactly trashing it, despite my thorough dislike of the portrayal of its crayon/catchup-drawn villain).  It's a good "under dog" story, celebrating freedom (symbolized by the moonshine whiskey and hills) and certainly the list of actors and actresses playing in the film is excellent.

The story's about the Bondurant brothers, Forrest (played by Tom Hardy) and Jack (played Shia LaBeouf), moonshiners from said Franklin County in rural southwestern Virginia during the Prohibition Era (1920-1933).  Already at the beginning of the film, they had a reputation of being "indestructible."  One had been the sole survivor of his _entire battalion_ in "The Great War" following a shipwreck on his way to Europe to fight.  The other, despite having caught the 1918 Spanish Flu that decimated the region (killing also much of his family as well as some 50 million people world-wide) had "gotten better" a few weeks after catching that flu and simply "went on with his life" even as all kinds of folks all around were dieing from it.

This sense of their apparent "indestructibility" then informed their response to "Special Agent Rakes'" arrival "from Chicago" to "turn the screws" on Franklin County's moonshiners (more like them "shake down") on behalf of the Government (in reality more like for the Chicago Mob).  Feeling themselves "indestructible" the Bondurant brothers decided to tell Special Agent Rakes to "go to Hell" when he sought to extort them, and the rest of the movie unspools from there ...

Of course a good moonshining, Prohibition Era gangster drama needs more than just "gangsters," "corrupt lawmen" and "rum-runners."  It needs women, and Jessica Chastain playing a former "show-girl" (again from Chicago...) who "just wanted some peace" (apparently all the way out in rural Virginia's Franklin County) and Mia Wasikowska playing a "preacher's daughter" from a presumably dry Amish-like sect provide the film's love interests for both Forrest and Jack respectively.  It all makes from a very good story and is at least in part based on true events.

There is one other aspect of the story I did not like -- it's episodic _needlessly brutal_ depictions of violence.  Yes, this is largely a "gangster film," so violence comes with the territory.  However, I would argue that the violent scenes in this film are often so over-the-top graphically portrayed that they cloud over, arguably _drench_, the rest of the story.  PARENTS PLEASE TAKE NOTE that one of the characters in the film HAS HIS THROAT SLIT.  The depiction of that scene is still _with me_ and there are several other scenes approaching that level of brutality.  Yes, the throat slitting apparently really happened in the true story, BUT is _that scene_ really what a film-maker/story-teller would want the viewer to remember from the film?   Is not the larger story largely in danger of being lost in the blood of that one scene?  And I do think that this is a problem whenever film-makers _choose_ to focus _too much_ "on the blood" of a story rather than on the story itself.

So bottom line.  This _not_ a bad film, but it could have been MUCH BETTER.  If the film-makers chose to focus less on the blood of the one scene described above (and several others like it) and less on the "Chicago-ness" of the "dirty government agent" they would have had on Oscar contending 4 star movie.  Instead, they give us a 2 - 2.5 Star arguably right-wing propaganda piece that leaves viewers remembering largely brutal details in the film rather than the larger story itself.  The film makers owed the actors/actresses of this film (and viewers) much better.

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