John Hillcoat has carved out a place in contemporary cinema that speaks to a bygone era where manhood and violence was a product of meditative poetry. Every straight-forward gush of blood in The Proposition or cold, desperate murder in The Road came at the cost of what human life means in the vacuum of universal existence. His newest film, Lawless, makes the violence front and center, with every moment, from the opening scene to the final gun fight, being about taking the life of another animal at any means necessary. At one point, after his weaker brother Jack has taken a beating, Forest Bondurant says, “It’s not about the violence, it’s about the distance a man will go.” A defined theme with the promise of layered looks at masculinity. However, Lawless wants to be a film that its not and an array of splintered plot threads undercuts virtually every textured moment that could have shined through.
It’s prohibition time in America and bootleggers are waging bloody wars while trying to make a profit off illegal booze. The Bondurant brothers are some of the most successful liquor sellers living in Franklin County, known as the “wettest county in the world.” Seemingly simultaneously, the younger brother Jack gets eyes for the preacher’s daughter and a former dancer from Chicago, Maggie, arrives to work for the Bondurant’s corner store. Also concurrently, a new lawman, Charlie Rakes, who oozes slimy corruption, shows up to tell the brothers that they will begin working with him or else their lives will be made miserable by the law. Amongst all this, Jack witnesses a nationally known mob boss, Floyd Bannister, as he rolls into town and murders a man in the streets, with no one even blinking an eye. The struggle of the Bondurant’s to stand up to these powerful city folk and maintain their business becomes the driving narrative of the picture.
Central to Lawless, is a complex family dynamic that neither considerably relates nor pushes too far from the kinds of families we’ve come to expect from dramas. Forest Bondurant is the brother the other two look up to and want to be just like. It’s never clear what exactly Forest does besides bumble around and smash people’s faces in with brass knuckles, but nonetheless he inspires respect. So much respect, in fact, that the family thinks the man might be immortal. He does, as it turns out, survive death multiple times throughout the film. Jack, played with youthful energy by Shia LaBeouf, is the brother who wants to prove his worth. At least that’s what one can extract from the scattered through-line of the story. Like many of LaBeouf ‘s prior performances, he comes off more as a brash trickster who doesn’t think before he does anything. That the writing puts him in situations where he momentarily tries to play the hero only to be easy cut down and then narrowly escaping, feels like a repetitive start and stop that never satisfies any real competitive sibling dynamic.
The two main romances of the picture digress the plot and can’t help but distract from the action. As is frequently the case with pictures like this, the love stories are placed almost out of necessity, as though servicing a cultural expectation. Without these moments being central to the themes, they are delivered as stall contrivances we’ve watched many times before (the sex scene between Forest and Maggie being the worst offender). Folk music montages, redundant beats, and compelling scenes that are not followed through, hamstring the narrative into a knot that even it’s tremendous performances can’t wriggle out from.
Without a defined leading character, Hillcoat smartly rounds his cast with a group of formidable non-stars who possess enough draw to light up the exploits they’re in. The trick almost works as each character brings colors and nuance, bleeding dynamism from scenes even when it’s unclear what the relationships between the characters are. For instance, Gary Oldman’s gangster never settles into a concrete place within the film. He seems a famous mob boss with a thirst for killing and illegally making money. How or why he shows up in this town only makes sense when you realize that this is the county with the best moonshine in the world. Yet, Bannister’s existence never matches the puzzle of the many other subplots at play. Oldman’s ability to be interesting manages to save his scenes from being completely out of place or laborious.
Jessica Chastain, dropped into the movie in an early scene, adds a subtlety that again speaks to how appealing a leading lady she might become. Unfortunately, I never grasped onto why she was in the film either, so her scenes also felt a bit undercut. She, like Oldman, draws the most from the material that she can. Tom Hardy, always the wounded animal in human clothing, has developed a penchant for grumbling, ill-educated types. He manages to keep his character, as the strange death-defying brother, fascinating. For the first time in the many performances Hardy has given recently, I did question to what extent his method of nuance is steeped in honesty and how much the mumbling might be a put-on.
Visually, the picture contains some of the most fascinating images I’ve seen in digital cinema. LaBeouf’s face during the end shootout, touched by the contrast of glowing forest light and the shadow of tunnel, was the kind film books are built for. The lush sweep of trees gave the film a feel that many period pieces and Westerns leave out. Even John Ford’s wide shots of the western frontier built the mise-en-scene around that which the characters touched. However, because primitive life and the natural order of things is central to Hillcoat’s aesthetic, he never leaves out images that emphasize the world going on around the characters. Early on, Forest says, “there’s a lot the birds don’t know about the world that they live in.” To contrast the beauty of the images, Hillcoat also litters the production design with a sense of corporate American takeover. Consistent in many frames are advertisements for growing successful businesses like Coca-Cola or Gulf Western Motor Oil.
The lack of clarity in movement sometimes forced the editing and shooting style to be at odds with one another. Too many characters moving through convenient geographical spaces confused some of the scenes that otherwise had the most narrative potential. For example, late in the film, after Rakes has taken out all the bootleggers in Franklin besides the Bondurant’s, he sets his sights on Jack while he’s a date with the preacher’s daughter. The build up is one of the most intoxicating in the picture. Jack’s character finally flourishes and his love interest’s beauty shines when she puts on her new dress. We discover that Rakes and his crew are following Jack. Crosscut from the sun-drenched images to the blurry swath of binoculars, tension is slowly built. Then, when Rakes goes in for the kill, the entire scene gets muddled by odd, convoluted staging, the emergence of two seemingly ancillary characters, and a payoff that doesn’t directly relate to the promise of the opening portion of the scene. Perhaps no other scene in the picture represents a better example of narrative convulsion and stylistic distraction than this one.
Lawless had the pieces in place to be another compelling entry into Hillcoat’s growing canon of violent pictures, more about the soul of man than the provocation of blood and guts. A fractured menagerie of subplots and a lack of a driving force confused almost every scene, if also seeming to cut them short without any pay off. One must wonder how much the studio had to do with the dilution of this picture. Think about how the original title, The Wettest County in the World, while also a more interesting title in general, would have immediately cleared up some of the plot misgivings. Perhaps because the original could have been mistaken for something sexual, the studio settled on Lawless, a far more neutral, indecisive, and, ultimately, forgettable name. Unfortunately, the new title fits the film all too well. [C+]