Sunday, September 9, 2012

'Lawless' ain't flawless - review

One of the biggest reasons I wanted to see Lawless was solely for the setting and the period. I grew up mere miles down the road from Franklin County, VA. The legends of bootleggers and moonshine still ring through the Southwest Virginia valley, and Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road) was an ideal candidate to give full splendor and anthropological precision to the area, while drenching it in his unflinching violence.

In some ways, I got what I hoped for. Though shot in Georgia -- and any seasoned Son of the Commonwealth will probably notice some discrepancies in Hillcoat's beautiful nature shots, but that's almost beside the point -- Hillcoat and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme find numerously stunning ways to frame dirt roads, open fields, and misty mountains. While Hillcoat's gritty, uncompromising view of Australia in his breakout film The Proposition marked him as a filmmaker geared towards capturing the feel of places, his style there felt bred out of an affinity with that land -- here, he's very much an anthropologist. I'd venture there are more long shots in Lawless than any other non-Steven Soderbergh movie of the last two years. Many shots linger away from characters, look through windows, and ask us to soak in the details of this land. Franklin, VA is rendered simplistically but richly.

The first 30 or so minutes of Lawless are, for this reason, wonderful. I found myself chuckling over how right the geography felt. The slow pace, the establishment of the Bondurant brothers and their moonshine enterprise, the introduction of new law forces from Chicago to clamp down on Prohibition -- screenwriter Nick Cave built a strong first act that draws on traditional genre structures. Tom Hardy, as the lumbering man-of-few-words Forrest Bondurant, is best in show among the strong cast that also features Shia LeBeouf (who has matured remarkably; this is the first time I haven't been annoyed with him), Jessica Chastain, Guy Pierce (a snarling, rabid bit of scene-chewing), and Jason Clarke. In many ways, this cast assembles some of the best talent working today, and they're all top-notch. After seeing Hardy strut his stuff as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises earlier this summer, his turn here is almost more revelatory. He's able to carry his weight in his chest, totally nail the accent, and give Forrest a mythological soulfulness and terrifying brutality necessary for the weight the film wants to apply to him.

Everything that makes it onto the screen in Lawless varies from beautiful to riveting to serviceable. It's what gets left out that makes the movie so maddeningly uneven. At just under two hours, it feels remarkably incomplete. There is a kind of epic seed planted in the first 45 minutes that never gets played out. What starts out as slow starts to accelerate once violence comes into the picture. There are more montages, more jumps forward in time in ways that feel forced to just get us to the next important thing, and a build-up to a climactic shoot-out that's simply too fast. The climax, its resolution, and the subsequent denouement are robbed of resonance. Take, for example, Gary Oldman, who plays a Northern gangster setting up shop in Roanoke. He has two or three scenes, but has one hell of an introduction, and crackles in every second he's in. Then he disappears. It's an arc about the broader web of the bootlegging business that gets introduced but unexplored, a tangent that feels largely incidental and a total miss. This is worse for Jessica Chastain, who enters the film a world-weary soul running from some kind of mysterious past, and about halfway through becomes a sexual object designed solely to cater to and worry about her man -- it's a betrayal of an interesting character, and a pretty crappy representation of femininity.

I don't know the production history of the film enough to make assumptions, but I can imagine a bigger version of the screenplay -- or maybe of the film itself -- that built quietly, explored the Southern geography, and focused much more on the character relationships than this final version, which switches tempo between and among scenes at a confounding rate. Any "internal beats" to help connect thematic arcs disappear as a consequence, and make it feel splintered. I hope that somewhere there's a three hour version of this film, because I honestly believe Lawless could have been a great, masterful gangster movie. Maybe there was simply too much story; maybe it would have worked better as a miniseries.

With so much care obviously paid to designing the film and creating an accurate view of Southwest Virginia, it's a shame the film has to feel so slight. The violence is the most wrenching and riveting thing in the whole film, and Hillcoat never shies away from it. The beauty of the landscape and the ugliness of the fighting between the cops and moonshiners forms the central contrast of the film, and is certainly -- from a visual standpoint -- fantastic. But even for a genre film, Lawless's narrative is just too generic to cut it.

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