Friday, December 14, 2012

Catching up with 2012: Lawless

I really wanted to love Lawless. Everything is in place for me to be gushing over this movie: John Hillcoat, Nick Cave script and music, Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography, a great cast headlined by Tom Hardy, and, of course, Jessica Chastain. However, it never coalesces into a cohesive film. I admire the craft, but there’s not a whole lot here to give a damn about. It’s a bunch of interesting, violent vignettes (it almost feels like Cave wrote the songs first and then he and Hillcoat decided what scenes would look neat accompanying those songs) that doesn’t feel as mythic as it’s trying to come off as. I hate to compare it to Hillcoat/Cave/Delhomme’s previous collaboration – the brilliant, ultraviolent, McCarthy-esque western The Proposition – but the 1930s Virginia just doesn’t come off as being as interesting – or successfully feeling “of a place” – as The Proposition’s violent outback setting does. Maybe I’m “prohibitioned” out right now with “Boardwalk Empire,” but I just never felt like the film was really that stimulating. I was never really fully engaged with the film. It just kind of sits there on the screen feeling so unnecessary. There’s a lot here for fans of Cave and Hillcoat to like – especially its ties to Cave’s biggest literary influences Faulkner and O’Conner – but Lawless really is the most frustrating kind of film: a film that should work; a film with so much talent working on it, telling a not-so-well-known true story with great costume and set design, tommy guns and gangsters, and a sure-fire interesting milieu…yet it just doesn’t work.

And that’s too bad, too, because there is a lot of talent working on the film. The aforementioned trio of Hillcoat, Cave, and Delhomme will always be enough to pique my interest; however, there’s just a kind of disjointed coldness to the film that left me at arm’s length. I think part of the problem is in Cave’s script. I don’t need to like the characters of the movie I’m watching, but if you’re going to make a movie about a bunch of bad dudes – in this case the Bondurant family – then please pick the most interesting of those characters to focus your film on. The Bondurant brothers – Jack, Forrest, and Howard – are played by Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and Jason Clarke respectively. I’ll leave it to you, the intelligent reader, to pick out the name that stinks up the joint.

Okay, I don’t want to be too hard on LaBeouf because I think it’s just a case of horrible miscasting, but man is he just bad bad bad here. I don’t know if the filmmakers thought they could really sell Lawless as a 100 million dollar summer movie with LaBeouf in the lead, but he’s just so out of his element in every scene, especially when he has to cry over one of his friends being murdered. The laughable attempt at a scene of emotion is accentuated by the fact that Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain have to share the scene with the sniveling LaBeouf.

When Lawless begins, we get Jack’s narration setting the stage for what will happen in the film, and at the end the narration returns to tell us what has happened to the family since the events that transpired in the movie. It’s so hokey. At the onset, it seems like it’s trying to set up this epic story about family of bootleggers; however, what plays out is the opposite. The movie just kind sits there on the screen with no flow from one moment to the next. Oh, it looks like it has energy and that a lot of stuff is happening, but I didn’t know what the hell I was supposed to care about while it was unfolding in front of me.

For instance, Jack tries to woo the daughter of Mennonite preacher. Okay, why? I mean the scene during the church service is interesting (and right up Nick Cave’s alley, specifically his 2001 No More Shall We Part phase, so I can see why he wanted in the film), but aside from it being a nice setpiece, what was the purpose of it? The service pauses for a moment to do a ceremonial foot washing. Jack goes over to Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the girl he fancies, to get his feet washed, but becomes sick and races out of the church sans a boot. The image of Jack with one bare foot fleeing the church is a humorous one (evoking O’Conner), and it leads to a scene where new-on-the-case and dirty cop Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) greets Jack with a brutality equal to Jack’s brothers. It’s a visceral scene, yes, but again, so what? There countless other scenes that play out in this “so what?” manner. The narration suggests I should care about the brothers’ plight, especially considering the bizarre coda that feels like it’s from a completely different film about a family of heroes, not assholes like Bondurant’s. I certainly didn’t care about these characters enough to warrant gathering around a table with them and hearing how their lives turned out.

Even though I didn’t care a lick about the family, at least Hardy and Clarke bring some intensity and intrigue to their performances. I loved the way Hardy played Forrest as man seemingly under control but really he’s just a violent, violent man that is extremely understated. I also liked the interactions between Maggie (Chastain) and Forrest, especially at the end when Forrest confronts her about an event that happened on the same night his throat was slit. It’s a brief, powerful moment for the actors that sadly aren’t given enough opportunities to duplicate scenes like this one. Jack’s story is one of little interest (again, maybe I’m “prohibitioned” out right now) to me, and I was shocked when the film kept getting up and leaving the interesting parts (interactions between Forrest and Maggie, Forrest and Howard, or the astoundingly stupid decision to underuse Gary Oldman as gangster Floyd Banner) to go follow the bumbling, whiny Jack around. One final note about the actors: Guy Pierce, with his no eyebrows and Spanky from “Our Gang” haircut, gives an amazingly bizarre performance that was extremely hilarious and entertaining while I was watching it, but he seemed to be playing a completely different note than everyone else in the film; it’s almost as if he thought he was in a Coen Brothers movie, and after a while the idiosyncrasies aren’t so much menacing as they are annoyingly out of place.

I know it probably sounds like I really hate this movie, but it’s not hatred; it’s disappointment. For me, disappointment is always worse than hate, and I was so extremely disappointed in Lawless. Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain are fantastic (although the latter is really not given much to do), Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score is fantastic, the costume design is fantastic (the first time you see Chastain’s Chicago dancer with red dress and red hair juxtaposed with the dusty colors of backwoods Virginia, it’s pretty damn beautiful), yet it just never quite amalgamates into a great – or even good – movie. Disappointment notwithstanding, I still think Lawless is worth a view; there’s that much talent at work here. 


  1. I think I liked LAWLESS a little more than you did. I really can't refute much of your criticism, except to say that I thought LaBeouf acquitted himself just fine. He was the weakest link in the film because he was the weakest link in the family, if you think about it. He isn't physically imposing like Forrest and Howard and is envious of that. So that's why he relies on his wits and soon finds himself completely out of his depth.

    For me, the film belonged to Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce. The first scene they share together is amazing and the rest of the film is anti-climactic afterwards. We basically get to see two actors working on a whole other level than anyone else in the film. Great stuff.

    I'm glad you mentioned Jason Clarke. He was wonderful understated in this role. I really need to see more of his work.

    1. I like that you single out Hardy and Pearce. The latter just seemed to be in a totally different movie, though. But, man, Hardy was great. It's a shame the movie lets him down.

      I understand where you're coming from in regards to LaBeouf's performance, but I just wasn't interested in his sniveling character one bit. I would have much rather seen more of Forrest. Oh well.

  2. I, on the other hand, was even less impressed; I think this was a terrible film that wasted so many good elements and actors on such an incompetently structured and developed screenplay, that I was quite angry by the end of it.

    1. I talked to my brother about the movie yesterday, and it kind of hit me after our conversation: the more I think and talk about the film, the more I dislike it. So, I think I'm finding myself more aligned with your hatred, Rod. I wasn't as angry by the end of the film, but I'm pretty angry now when I think about the talents wasted. The stuff the film does well seems harder to recall the more i discuss the movie with others. Frustrating.