Lawless

Year of Release: 2012     Directed by John Hillcoat.  Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Guy Pearce, and Gary Oldman.

“Pull the trigger.”  So Jack’s older brothers order him as he stares at a pig that needs to be shot.  As long as Jack stares at the pig, he cannot bring himself to kill it.  Finally, his older brothers sigh and kill the animal for him.  This incident, which opens the film prior to the credits, perfectly sets and summarizes the relationship between the three Bondurant brothers.  Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is much less of a leader than his older brothers, easily frightened and lacking their grit.  He also casts doubt on the legend that the Bondurants are immortal, arising from the several near death experiences that Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) have escaped.

A voiceover from Jack informs the audience that the Bondurants operate one of the most profitable moonshining businesses during the prohibition in Franklin County, Virginia.  They are enough out of the way to avoid the violence of the city with its ruthless law officials and ruthless criminals such as Floyd Banner. (Gary Oldman)  The Bondurants can also escape repercussions from the law, because the few officials in their county turn a benevolent eye towards the brothers and even purchase their whiskey.

However, the entire racket is seriously jeopardized when Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives from Chicago.  He is a sadistic law enforcer, who will complete his assigned mission of capturing the moonshiners, even if he has to break more laws than the criminals he is pursuing.  To emphasize his evil nature, Rakes is dressed in a fine suit, complete with leather gloves so his hands stay clean when he beats someone up.

The film raises interesting questions about who is truly lawless and how to be lawful in a lawless society.  The brothers are operating outside of the law, but they have principles and codes of honor.  Forrest even tells Jack that the reason they sometimes must act brutally is to defend their honor and their principles.  Rakes, on the other hand, is a ruthless villain, breaking just as many laws, if not more, than the Bondurants in his vicious hunt for the lawbreakers.  Jack’s girlfriend Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) is the daughter of the local preacher, and she does inspire Jack to improve his behavior, but not to change his way of life.  Forrest tells Jack that the difference between men is measured by one’s commitment to a cause, not by his strength or weakness.  Ultimately, if the film gives any answer to its interesting ethical questions, which I am not sure it does, morality boils down to one’s intentions, which is a disappointing answer.

What I most noticed about this prohibition era film were the many similarities with another much more famous film set during the prohibition.  The story concerns an all powerful family, who operates a lucrative business outside of the law.  The leader of that family is near invincible, but changing forces threaten his hold on his underworld.  The youngest member of the family wants to get out and not be involved with the killing and illegal activity.  He even has a girlfriend who is disgusted by the reputation and behavior of his family.  However, when the oldest member of the family is recuperating in the hospital after being left for dead from a near fatal assault, the youngest member of the family begins to take over the responsibilities as leader after visiting the leader in the hospital several times.  The second-in-command is also too hot headed to be successful as a leader.  When the second-in-command’s sibling is beaten up, he savagely returns the favor.  A former ally betrays the family and is severely punished.

These similarities with The Godfather do break down.  The finale in Lawless is somewhat predictable and does not contain any of the brilliance that The Godfather has in its climax as Michael takes on a dual godfathership.  Another bigger problem is the reason for the youngest family member’s reluctance to be involved.  In The Godfather, Michael is disgusted by his family’s lifestyle.  When he tells Kay about offers that people can’t refuse, he shares her disgust, emphasizing that is how his family behaves, not he.  In Lawless, Jack is not repulsed by the actions of his older brothers; on the contrary, he is proud of his family name.  He admires their leadership and wishes that he could help them and be like them, but he does not have the stomach to do so.  If Jack had been watching this movie, the fight that occurs within the first ten minutes would have sent him running for the exit.

Even more problematic is the film’s celebration of Jack’s transformation.  In the film’s view, he is initially cowardly and childlike, and he becomes a man as he more successfully follows in his brothers’ footsteps.  As another stark contrast to The Godfather, Lawless suggests that the violence and crime can easily be set aside once the law stops persecuting mostly decent people and forcing them to turn to a life of crime.  The Godfather showcases a tragic descent into sin that leads to more sin.

Finally, regarding the many similarities to The Godfather, Lawless invites a direct comparison to arguably the greatest gangster/prohibition film without bringing anything substantially new to the story.  I love when a movie cleverly pays tribute to a classic, but when it copies a classic without offering anything new, I feel that I should just be re-watching the classic.

Lawless is not without merit.  The entire cast gives phenomenal performances, which alone makes the movie worth watching for film buffs with strong stomachs.  LaBeouf captures the innocence and longing of Jack.  Hardy is impressive and commanding as the soft spoken leader of the brothers.  Pearce is intimidating and thoroughly evil as the villainous Rakes.  Chastain gives a heartfelt performance as Forrest’s vulnerable girlfriend.  Oldman is great in his extended cameo as the important gangster who features into the story in a somewhat predictable, yet satisfying way.

Director John Hillcoat captures the feel of 1920’s Virginia and the Prohibition Era very convincingly, using carefully structured shots, solid editing and cinematography, and authentic costumes and sets.  The score also adds to the ’20’s atmosphere.

The entire film is based on actual events, documented in The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of one of the brothers.  The film portrays those events with affection not only for the era but for the life of crime, which, along with copious copying of The Godfather, undermines the mostly impressive craftsmanship.

Content Advisory: Graphic gory violence including fistfights, shootouts, and a brief shot of amputated genitals; a scene of tarring and feathering; several scenes of nudity; some sexual content; two implied rapes; and much profanity and obscenity.                           MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: C+

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