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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

LAWLESS -- Blu-Ray/DVD review by porfle



In director John Hillcoat's 2005 film THE PROPOSITION, he took a familiar genre--the American Western--and gave it a distinctly Australian spin that practically turned the Outback into Monument Valley.  With LAWLESS (2012), he and screenwriter Nick Cave bring this Western sensibility forward into the Prohibition era with a stunning backwoods mash-up of gunfighters, moonshiners, and Chicago-style gangsters. 

THE PROPOSITION's star, Guy Pearce (MEMENTO, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL), is back as special deputy Charlie Rakes, a mildly grotesque-looking dandy with a severe haircut and a total lack of both eyebrows and scruples.  Rakes is a crooked lawman who intends to muscle his way into the booming moonshine business that makes Franklin County, Virginia "the wettest county in the world", but in doing so comes up against the tightly-bonded Bondurant brothers--Forrest, Howard, and Jack--who have no intention of giving the big-city interloper one red cent of their moonshine profits no matter how many gun-toting government goons he sends their way.

This, of course, leads to war.  Forrest (Tom Hardy, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, STAR TREK: NEMESIS), leader of the Bondurant boys, is a soft-spoken, taciturn lug with a reputation for immortality--he tends to survive even the most grievous injuries and no-win situations, until finally his fabled luck runs out on him in one of the film's most shocking scenes. Vengeance follows close behind, and with it an escalation of the violence into the realm of the horrific (to which director Hillcoat is no stranger). 


Hardy's simmering yet robust performance is among LAWLESS' many fascinations, notable in part for the sympathy and admiration evoked by such a sometimes ruthless character.  When city girl Maggie (Jessica Chastain, CORIOLANUS) seeks work at the Bondurants' rural roadhouse to escape a troubled past, Forrest's uncomfortable shyness in response to her romantic overtures is endearing. 

As de facto head of the family, he looks after his brothers the only way he knows how--by being a fearsome badass who never backs down to anybody.  This leads to some tense and exciting confrontations between him and various local and state lawmen who dare to stick their noses in his business.

Howard (Jason Clarke, DEATH RACE, PUBLIC ENEMIES) is older and brawnier than Forrest but not as smart or responsible.  He can go from affable to animalistic in seconds, and in one of the film's highlights, two deputies delivering an ultimatum from Rakes learn the hard way not to rile Howard when he's been on a stump-whiskey bender. 


The youngest Bondurant, Jack (Shia LaBeouf, A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS), is a crackerjack driver but lacks the cruel edge needed to be a gangster like his idol, "Mad Dog" Floyd Banner (a wonderful Gary Oldman).  Floyd pulls into Jack's sleepy town one day, whips out his Tommy gun, and coolly riddles a pursuing ATF man's car with bullets while the youngster looks on admiringly.

Jack has a harrowing brush with Floyd in Chicago later on while trying to move a load of moonshine along with his younger partner Cricket (Dane DeHaan, CHRONICLE), with Oldman making the most of his brief appearance in the role. 

Shia LaBeouf is at his best here as the callow, naive outlaw-wannabe preening like a peacock in his late father's suit, playing gangster while headed for a rude awakening as Rakes and his goons close in on the Bondurants.  Meanwhile his awkward romantic intentions are inflamed by a doe-like preacher's daughter named Bertha (Mia Wasikowska, THAT EVENING SUN), who finds him more appealing than does her fire-and-brimstone father.  Jack's coming-of-age is the main story in LAWLESS, as his innate humanity prevents him from fully transforming into that which he wrongly idealizes.


Hillcoat directs both the action and the quieter scenes with impeccable style, as finely-detailed production design captures the look and atmosphere of the era.  There's an oddly delirious intensity to the scene in which a drunken Jack visits Bertha's church just in time for a mutual foot-washing ritual that he finds unbearably erotic, while Maggie's late-night seduction of a bashful Forrest is both haunting and strangely amusing.  Such moments are offset by instances of sudden, bone-crushing violence that are unsparingly brutal.

The 3-disc Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo from Anchor Bay and the Weinsteins is in 2.35:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound and subtitles in English and Spanish.  There's an informative commentary track with director Hillcoat and author Matt Bondurant, who wrote the source novel "The Wettest County in the World" based on his own family history.  Extras also include deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes featurettes, and a music video by Willie Nelson for the song "Midnight Run."

Strangely, the rose-colored glasses through which Matt Bondurant seems to view his relatives' unsavory past ultimately give us an ending that almost matches RAISING ARIZONA for smarmy sentimentality.  Despite their more admirable qualities, these guys are violent, ruthless criminals--cornpone Corleones, you might say--so I must admit I didn't get that warm family vibe that Bondurant intends to impart at story's end.  But until then, LAWLESS is thrilling, emotionally resonant, exquisitely rendered, and riveting.



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