How long does it take before you start believing in your own legend? If you’ve been dealt a long series of winning hands, is it possible that you start thinking that you actually can’t lose? It’s an easy mistake to make of course…one that has been made all throughout history, and will certainly be made again. A shame really, since the ruin, violence, and misery that comes with believing in ones own invincibility is also well documented.
LAWLESS is the story of The Wettest County in the World. During The Prohibition Era, bootlegging is a way of life on Virginia. At night the hills are dotted with the fires of dozens of stills, as everything from turnips to apples is distilled down into moonshine liquor that is then sold off to the saloons and speakeasies of the surrounding towns and cities. Sure, there are laws against it, but in Virginia, the law is too busy turning a blind eye…or tipping back a jar themselves.
One of the most successful bootlegging operations is run by the Bondurant Brothers. Forrest (Tom Hardy) is the brains, Howard (Jason Clarke) is the muscle, Jack (Shia LeBeouf) is the driver, and family friend Crickett (Dane DeHaan) is the lookout/runner/wrench monkey/guy friday. The boys use their gas station/cafe as a front for their operation, where one day a Chicago dancer named Maggie (Jessica Chastain) comes asking for a job. She sticks out like a sore thumb, but that won’t stop them from hiring her.
Unfortunately for the Bondurants, life is about to get tricky as the District Attorney appoints a new assistant DA to oversee the county: His name is Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). When he comes calling to lay down the law, he plays it straight – either he gets a cut of The Bondurants’ action, or he’ll make their lives very difficult. Looks like nobody told Rakes that The Bondurants aren’t high on sharing in their earnings. So while Forrest tries to keep all his many enemies at bay, and Jake tries to catch the eye of a comely preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska), it feels like a fire is about to catch in this wet county.
LAWLESS delivers some rustic charm in what is largely a messy film. It passes the grade despite not really giving Jessica Chastain anything to do – which is a rather heinous crime in Hollywood these days. Maggie enters the story for no real reason, and doesn’t have a whole lot to add to the situation once she’s there except continually be a catalyst for Forrest’s actions. Maggie’s underuse is even more curious given the fact that Chastain stands out so well from everything else around her. On a palette of greys and browns, her red hair pops naturally, and she is helped all the more by a splendid wardrobe of reds and greens. It’s like hanging a neon sign to advertise a vacant dirt lot.
The other curious decision concerns Gary Oldman. His part as Floyd Banner is a glorified cameo: Three scenes long, maybe two dozen lines. The film doesn’t waste his efforts the same way it does Chastain’s, but part of me wonders if his participation in the film might have played better as a surprise. That’s more of a marketing critique than a filmmaking critique, but when the filmgoing public is surprised so seldom…why not give them something unexpected once in a while…especially where it’s an inconsequential element.
The story this film tells though is an interesting one, and at its core is a young man who flies too high on borrowed wings. When you watch Jack make his meteoric rise as a bootlegger, think about what the parallel story might be if the film was set in the present. I see Jack as a young financial trader, living the high life and being groomed for the corporate culture in some high stakes securities firm. You know the sort – walking with a confidence they haven’t totally earned yet, and not understanding that the ladder they are climbing is so rickety beneath them. Jack and Cricket might be able to see all sorts of angles to better the business, but the don’t have Forrest’s sense to remember just what business is built on.
That undercurrent alone might help the film get a passing grade in my eyes, but what really seals it for me is Guy Pearce as Rakes. It’s a shame that more people haven’t seen this film, because if they had, they would have been treated to one of the most heinous villains of the year. Rakes is a sadist who lives for bloodshed, but doesn’t want to get his hands dirty. He believes that just because he has the courtesy to say please and thank-you, that somehow makes it OK for him to verbally malign whoever he chooses. And worst of all, in an age where villains were heroes, Rakes doesn’t have it in him to be a true baddie. He makes his point by fighting dirty, and usually picking a lightweight opponent. Pearce relishes the deplorable part, playing it with true aplomb. It’s a pity Gary Oldman wasn’t given something equally meaty.
The best way to sum up LAWLESS is a phrase I’ve used before, and will use again: It’s less than the sum of its parts. This is a film that needed less Shia and Mia, and more Tom and Jessica. It’s a film that needed to underline how stupid a decision Prohibition was, especially at a time when governments continue to want to pass laws in the name of morality. Instead what we’re left with is something resembling some of that fine Kentucky moonshine: primitive, cloudy, and really tough to swallow