The article originally appeared in my column at Towleroad
Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) doesn't believe the tall tales about the outlaw Bondurant Boys especially the ones about Forrest (Tom Hardy). Local Virginia legend has it that Forrest can't be killed, that he's immortal. "Have you ever seen what a tommy gun does to 'immortal'?" Rakes sneers in a (successful) effort to terrorize the town's Forrest-fearing men into submission. Rakes then beats the youngest Bondurant brother Jack (Shia Labeouf) into a blubbering pulp. But, as it turns out, the Bondurant brothers are resilient enough to inspire tall tales. Forrest and his brothers make their living as moonshiners in this Depression-era Western and with Prohibition empowering organized crime, everyone is looking to be the top boss. The brothers value their autonomy but the guns are out and if an actual crime lord (Gary Oldman's "Floyd Banner") don't get them, then the even more crooked law enforcement (Pearce's Deputy) just might.
Such is the bloody conflict of John Hillcoat's Lawless, based on the historical novel "The Wettest County in the World" which was written by a grandson of the Bondurants (all childless during the movie) suggesting straightaway that at least one of them is going to make it out of the movie alive. Not that the film is shy about spoilers given its heavy handed foreshadowing and the past-tense narration. (You gotta Live to Tell).
When a movie opens with a scene of a little boy failing his tough brothers by being too sensitive to shoot a farm animal in the head... When a movie's toughest guy describes a future killing blow to his worst enemy... When a movie has a scene in which a big brother balks at his younger brother's pleas for rescue and suggests he needs to fight his own battles...
Well, it's hard not to see where that movie's plot lines will converge.
Unless, of course, you're taking all of the movie's (many) violent threats equally seriously in which case you'll be giving soft Jack some competition in the sobbing and quivering department. This is one brutal movie. Most Hollywood pictures worship tough guys and "Man up!" character arc narratives are common enough (Jack is going to have to quit with the sensitivity and make peace with the gun) but few of them go this far.
[SPOILER] Let's just say that in the summer of Magic Mike I didn't expect that the only balls we'd see onscreen would be severed and bloody and ready for their own closeup. In moments like this and elsewhere Lawless plays like a grotesque parody of tough guy posturing and masculine angst. It's balls are actually out while Labeouf tries to find his. Meanwhile Tom Hardy Brando-mumbles his way through scenes with his polar opposite Guy Pearce all preening and precise. Numerous characters, not just Forrest the Immortal, survive killing blows to demonstrate their manliness. Even the quickly dispatched henchman (like brilliant character actor Noah Taylor) are ressurected without a fuss. [/SPOILERS]
Lawless is far too generic a title for the movie's specificity for better and worse. The acting is always enthusiastic (Why is Mia Wasikowska cocking her head and flirting with such modernity when playing a preacher's daughter in the 30s who uses words like "courtin'"? Why is Guy Pearce adding another tic, however vivid, to the twenty-five he's already assembled for his character?). The movie's fetishistic relationship to feet is also of interest. There's a dramatically blunt shot of an expensive shoe blocking a door, another shoe as an amusing totem of humiliation, and a good sort of funny scene where the washing of feet in a church churns up several emotions... as well as the contents of Jack's stomachs. The best scene even hits as forcefully as tommy guns. A dreamy romantic walk through weeping willows late in the movie suddenly upends its own mood (twice!) with dramatic POV switches; same scene, entirely different feelings, all of them perfectly pitched.
But as the movie veers drunkenly from mediocre to great, and as it awkwardly stumbles between the fun of its over the top acting and the serious beats of its familiar crime drama plot, you get the sense that it was a nightmare in the editing room. Missing scenes are, for instance, the likely culprit when it comes to ex-dancer Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). She's introduced forcefully but the potency of her walk on feels curiously unearned given her always sketchy appearances thereafter. She's merely decorative but the movie insists she's functional.
Lawless was originally titled The Wettest County which is far more specific than Lawless though admittedly less flashy and equally ill suited to the movie. "Wettest" refers to the moonshine but Hillcoat is a very serious director and his preferred poison in every scene is blood. It's too bad, really. The actors are eager to get shitfaced but the movie is a teetotaler.
Oscar Hopes: I doubt that this is strong enough to hold against the onslaught of serious pictures that are on the way but if it does, it's best options are probably Costume Design and Song (Willie Nelson). But it's worth noting that Nick Cave, who composed the score also wrote the screenplay and his doppleganger Noah Taylor (just discussed) acts in the film. That's multi-tasking in a major way and a double act you don't see too often at the movies.