dir: John Hillcoat
*dramatic sigh* This is the biggest cinematic disappointment of the year thus far, for me. No, withhold your sympathy, spare me your proffered hankies, tiniest violins and empty consolation, neither I nor Lawless deserve it.
It’s meant to be a can’t-miss proposition, from the dudes who brought us, uh, The Proposition. Nick Cave wrote the script, John Hillcoat directs, quality soundtrack and score with the usual collaboration betwixt Cave and Warren Ellis, but with a whole bunch of other credible musicians as well doing their homages to the hillbilly moonshine era. There’s Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, and quality actresses Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain, and there’s extreme violence and nudity and redheads and ‘based on a true story’ cred and and and it all fucking falls over flat, because, I’m sorry to say this, but Nick Cave’s screenplay is absolutely the weakest element of it all.
See, lazier viewers / reviewers would say seriously / joke that it fails because of Shia LaBeouf playing a key role. I don’t think he sinks the flick at all. He doesn’t particularly save it either, but he’s not the one bringing the flick down. No-one else on this planet is going to agree with me, but I actually think he puts in a better performance than Beefcake of the Moment Tom Hardy.
They play moonshine-making brothers in Depression – Prohibition Era Virginia. They are the Bondurant brothers, Jack (the Beef), Forrest (Hardy), with middle brother Howard (Jason Clarke) completing the roster. They are making serious money, which of course attracts the worst kind of opportunists and entrepreneurs. Some corrupt, sexually ambiguous and very violent lawman (Guy Pearce) from Chicago comes to town to demand tribute from all the bootleggers, with backing from the Chicago mob, and bloody violence ensues.
There’re a lot of ingredients to this stew, but it’s more relevant to point out what was missing, for me, since I really didn’t like the flavour and did not enjoy the meal at all. Forrest is the grim eldest brother who speaks in a grunting monotone, with Hardy establishing his presence and then doing very little with it. Let me put it this way: he was more a dynamic and expressive character as Bane in the recent Batman flick, where we couldn’t even see most of his face. In this one he carries over an unfortunate habit he’s developed in recent films, where he pointedly avoids eye contact with the person he’s doing a scene with, and speaks past them as if they’re not in the same room. Honestly, there were scenes where he was chewing out Shia LaBeouf, where Shia came across as the believable one, and Hardy didn’t, frankly.
It hurts to say that, because LaBeouf The Beef is a horrible person and I can’t stand him, most of the time. He’s okay in this, but what really helps us to “enjoy” his presence and performance here is that if you ever wanted to watch a film where people beat the shit out of Shia LaBeouf continuously, this is the one for you. Guy Pearce, as the seedy villain of the piece, gets an especially brutal opportunity to enact upon The Beef what the rest of the cinema-going world only dreams of, after sitting through so many of his deeply shitty films.
Pearce’s character of Special Deputy Charley Rakes starts off seeming like he’s going to be interesting, but that feeling dissipated less than an hour in. Apart from his praiseworthy tormenting of the aforesaid chump, his only distinctive feature is his shaved eyebrows, bizarre centre parting and oily manner. Oh, and there’s the accent that’s all over the place, which went from German to Turkish to Chicago to Australian and back again.
He vows to kill the Bondurants, and the Bondurants have much incentive to kill him to, or at least he keeps giving them reasons to kill him. Forrest is a very cautious, very calm but threatening type, Howard is an erratic and violent drunk, and Jack, the very youngest, is meant to be cowardly but decent, unhandy but smart.
He’s the one we’re meant to barrack for, to understand, our entry point into the film and their world. He doesn’t manage to become that, but at least that gives us some scenes where he’s chatting in a charming fashion with a minister’s daughter, being sweet little innocent Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). Okay, this stuff is probably boring but I enjoy Mia Wasikowska in almost everything I see her in, and she does okay here in a small role.
Far less explicable is the character Jessica Chastain plays here, of Maggie. Formerly a fan dancer in Chicago, she escaped from there and holes up in hillbilly country to escape some violent types, presumably, and looks like an exotic bird surround by wild boars. She is (although way too thin) a delight to look at, and has, I have to admit, somewhat shamefully, a jaw-dropping nude scene (surprising because I didn’t think she’d ever stoop to conquer like that, being Oscar Nominated and all), and while her character is meant to be important, I couldn’t understand where she was coming from. She had no interior life that I could discern, other than whatever function the plot needs her to serve.
She also, unfortunately or fortunately reminded me of the “type” she embodied, which was also the main character of the Dogville / Mandalay Lars Von Trier’s films. No good ever comes from reminding me of Lars Von Trier or his difficult, painful, pretentious movies.
When something is “based on a true story”, it functions as a bit of a cop-out for the screenwriters and the film makers, sometimes. Instead of having to structure or justify (for us, or to us) how or why something happened, all they have to do is just say “this is what happened, you can’t blame me, because it happened, man.”
In instances like this, where they’re not going to bother to tell the story properly, it’s a failure of basic storytelling, for which “but that’s what happened” offers me no consolation. A couple of bad ol’ boys come to the Bondurant speakeasy / gas station, looking to kill or torture some of the Bondurants. They also threaten Maggie with sexual violence.
What happens, of course, is very violent, as the brothers Bondurant defend themselves and their employee. But how it all happens, perhaps fucked up by incompetent editing, makes not a lot of sense, even to an eagle-eyed observer like me. One of the guys gets viciously and deservedly beaten by Forrest using brass knuckles, the other is floored, unharmed, but threatened with a shotgun by Jack. Forrest then drags the bodies outside, and leaves them on the ground. Maggie tends to Forrest’s minor wounds, and grunting ego, and then leaves. Forrest then closes up shop, wanders around outside in the dark, wonders why the cover was up on one of his trucks.
Then he’s attacked, again. By the same two guys from before? What the hell?
Are these characters that fucking dumb? The problem becomes, for which the solution seems to be to say “well I guess they were that dumb in real life” that what happens to these characters results in scenes that are neither credible nor dramatically compelling, culminating in a final climactic scene so unbelievable and so clumsy that even real life could never approximate something so half-arsed.
Whether it happened or not, it’s impossible to believe that so-called clever, cunning good ole boys like our protagonists could launch an attack that the horsemen who took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade would have said, “hang back, you dolts, you’re fucking idiots if you think it’s going to work.”
Even with that loaded against it, when the brothers finally get their time to shine, the way it’s directed and edited makes even less sense now than it did when I was watching it. It’s poorly done, is all I have to say, and it bled what little good feeling I had left towards the film by its end.
It’s a film I was looking forward to a whole hell of a lot. It disappointed me a shitload, too. Everything was in place, but none of it gelled, and it came across as even more false and artificial than I would have imagined possible given the ‘talents’ of the people involved.
No, more than disappointed, I’m bloody angry about it. It was a waste of time, and about the only thing I take out of it is an appreciation for the cinematography of Harris Savides, for whom this will unfortunately be his last flick, considering how he died last month, and the soundtrack, which I’ll definitely buy.
Other than that, jeez, what were you chumps thinking with this weak tea, this thin gruel, this clumsy conglomeration of chuckworthy custard.
Don’t bother, that’s my recommendation, just don’t bother.
4 times you’d think Nick Cave would be able to write a better Southern Gothic hell and damnation bootlegger screenplay than this considering what he’s been doing for the last thirty years, but apparently it’s harder than it looks out 10
“You fucking hicks are a sideshow unto yourselves.” – that’s no way to talk about our brothers and sisters of the soil, old chum – Lawless