I’m really beginning to worry about John Hillcoat, the Australian director who made a hell of a splash with his violent, visceral, and vividly realized Western, The Proposition. His follow-up was a superficial adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a book already so stripped down and minimalistic that the themes are about as subtle as someone trying to kill a buzzing fly with a sledgehammer (my prejudice against the book shows that I was predisposed to disliking the film). Now with Lawless, Hillcoat is back to the valley of the vicious with Proposition screenwriter/Bad Seed songwriter Nick Cave, who adapted Matt Bondurant’s chronicle of his family’s involvement in the Prohibition-era bootleg business in “The Wettest County” of Franklin, Virginia. With these talented gentlemen behind the camera and Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, and Jessica Chastain in front, Lawless had all the genetic potential to be a winner. Unfortunately, it is a film with a bland and unmotivated protagonist (Shia LeBeouf, who else?) and with an antagonist whose absolute sadism initially makes the film electric . . . until we begin to realize that he also is unmotivated in his actions, making him the bloody equivalent of Dick Dasterdly from the children’s cartoon Wacky Races.
The film begins—if you can call it a beginning, as the film essentially uses the first two-thirds of its running time before anything of substance occurs—with Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) being brought in to “clean up” the liquor-saturated Franklin County by the District Attorney. The D.A. doesn’t so much want to shut down the bootleggers in the area as he wants to get a piece of the action. Blocking his path are Forrest (Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Jack (LeBeouf) Bondurant, three brothers with a reputation for being both intemperate and immortal. The brothers agree that there will be no deal with Rakes and the D.A. and that business will continue as they see fit. Threats are made on both sides and yet both parties walk away from the initial conflict unscathed.
This is the first logical fault in the narrative of the film. The first fifteen minutes sets up two camps who essentially vow to kill each other. Then, instead of plotting their attacks, both parties forget about it for a while. Eventually, Jack is attacked in the cafe that the brothers run as a front. He seems surprised when it occurs, an emotion we do not share with him because he has essentially been warned that trouble is coming and should have prepared himself, like any self-respecting gangster with a shred of common sense. Similarly, when the brothers strike back at Rakes for his transgressions against them, he also seems ill-prepared. The question that kept running through my mind while watching Lawless was “Why?” I became frustrated by character stupidity that was being mobilized—cheaply—to construct conflict. No one performs an action for any apparent reason; they are all like the Joker in The Dark Knight . . . They just “do” things. (You may have noticed that I have not mentioned Gary Oldman, who briefly appears as a gangster. That is because he is squandered by the film, perhaps its greatest offense to my cinematic tastes.)
There is one aspect of the film that I find worthy of a small degree of praise. The film lampoons faux masculinity and, in the genre of the action film, this is a rarity. Some of the narrative events in Lawless (those that aren’t motivated by illogical action) are caused by Jack, a sheepish, effeminate character whose masculine masquerades mess everything up (see also To Live and Die in L.A.). In a film in which major events are rarely the product of psychological motivation, Jack’s attempts to act like a man provide a backfiring engine. For instance, he allows one villainous character to live—after being unable to bring himself to shoot him—which, in turn, results in the death of another protagonist. Despite this narrative mockery of Jack, the film does not critique effeminate men as being ineffective. Rakes is depicted as (perhaps being) a closet homosexual whose “perfume,” black leather gloves, and parted hair mask what must be self-loathing that he takes out on anybody in his blast radius. It is implied that he tortures female prostitutes for possibly bringing out his impotence with members of the opposite sex while the final scenes illustrate his hatred of being labeled a “dandy.” Moreover, the film does not render a judgment on the “pure” masculine figures of Forrest and Howard. Essentially, Jack—the film’s chief protagonist—is the target of the film’s ridicule because he will not recognize his true nature. Conflict arises when he denies that he is incapable of violence by hiding behind flashy suits, fast cars, and not-so-fast women. Unlike Rakes, Jack’s violence is not the product of him loathing his effeminate traits because, as we are shown in the first scene, violent acts simply are not in his physical vocabulary. He thinks he is a gangster and he acts like he is a gangster, a failed performance that becomes his chief sin. Jack simply wasn’t made to be a moonshine muscle.