September 2, 2012

Lawless Follows the Rules

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“It is not the violence that sets men apart. It is the distance that he is prepared to go.”

Gunshots, stab wounds and illness: These men have been said to survive all. Rumors float around their town, declaring them invincible. They exist as a legend, using fear to feed their illegal moonshine business and stay above the law: In essence, they are Lawless.

Director John Hillcoat (The Road, The Proposition) leads these three brothers — Howard, Forrest and Jack — through the predictable upheaval as the greasy Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) enters Franklin County, Va. Rolling in from Chicago, Rakes has a slimy interpretation of what he can do with the law. In the now widely-accepted revisionist history of 1920s Prohibition, federal agent Rakes serves as the one-sided antagonist of the bootlegging Bondurant brothers. Abandoning truth for romanticism, the film’s ideology skims the surface of the multifaceted conflict of Prohibition. In theory, the brothers may be as evil as Rakes, but Lawless settles on glorifying the brothers and vilifying authority for reasons never clarified.

Howard (Jason Clarke) is the eldest of the three. He is their wild man: howling in caves and tackling police officers in “fits of insanity.” Shia LaBeouf plays Jack, the youngest of the three, the narrator of the story and the unmistakable “good guy” type. The truly memorable performance, however, is that of the middle brother, Forrest. Tom Hardy is still carrying more than just his bulk from The Dark Knight Rises; he brings Forrest Bondurant the legend and power that characterized Bane. Though less loquacious than Bane, Hardy groans and grunts without the aid of computer manipulation, delivering some truly powerful lines in his low, mumbling register. The three brothers are not the polished gangsters we have seen in movies like Public Enemies; they are a dirtier, different class of criminal. Forrest and Howard prefer fists to guns, making the fight scenes all the more graphic.

Although a few shining moments come and go, the majority of the film rolls along without inspiration or much consequence. The plot has been told in some variation before, and the cinematography capturing it will not win any Oscars. The typical scenes of galloping horses and criminal shootouts are all accounted for and do not stand apart from prior examples in the genre in any major way. The only unique part of this film is its use of sound, or lack thereof. This is no episode of Gilmore Girls: Hillcoat has no fear of silence and, in fact, embraces it. Many scenes are coated with simple background noises of cars driving away, birds calling or just characters breathing. The dialogue seems somewhat sparse, especially with Forrest’s guttural growls making up a great deal of his conversations. Pulling back from an overflow of words, however, gives the characters opportunities to connect beyond the incessant babble of dialogue. Cries for help, sexual encounters and vows of vengeance are all communicated through gestures and looks. The Bondurant brothers do not need to explain their actions — their reasoning is seen, felt, but not heard.

Though silence is a large presence in the film, the background music is, of course, a factor. The songs themselves are mostly standard old fashioned country croons, plus a perplexing folksy take on The Velvet Underground’s classic “White Light/White Heat,” which appears twice on the soundtrack. The soundtrack is nothing special, with the notable exception of the wordless songs composed by Warren Ellis and Lawless screenwriter Nick Cave. When Deputy Rakes arrives, he talks and the sheriff talks (Forrest just glares of course), but lurking beneath their speeches is a horrible sound, almost like nails on a chalkboard. When simply focusing on the characters and their deliveries, it creates a background feeling of uneasiness and the need to cringe. The audio implies that Rakes is unnatural and horrid before he even speaks, though until you focus on the sound you would not understand exactly why you feel this way (unless, of course, you looked at his slicked-back hair with the bald spot down the middle).

The movie isn’t simply cops and robbers, however, and several of Hollywood’s up-and-coming actresses portray the brothers’ lovers. Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain each take on one of the Bondurant boys and lend a hint of the female touch to an essentially all male cast. Their characters serve only two purposes: to show the moral integrity and heroism of the brothers, and to keep the movie from slipping into a two-hour brawl. Other supporting characters help the film on its way. Gary Oldman makes a brief appearance as the only true gangster of the film. Though seen doing truly appalling deeds, Oldman’s character embodies the “lawless” ideals of the film, as he is viewed only through rose-tinted glasses. The only other notable character in the film is the cripple Cricket Pate. Cricket, played by Dane DeHaan, is the best friend of Jack and the surprisingly innocent genius behind the technical aspect of the entire bootlegging business. Cricket’s near ignorance helps reinforce the skewed idea that the Bondurant brothers are barely doing anything wrong and that all the fault lies in the law and its enforcers.

Lawless is your typical ’20s era “above the law” film. Though it features a cast of celebrated actors all turning in admirable performances, it has nothing to truly let it stand out above the crowd. It will line shelves with other movies of its type as a decent, entertaining film with no merit beyond that.

Original Author: Marissa Tranquilli