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Lawless – John Hillcoat. Stupid men doing stupid things in very stupid ways for pretty stupid reasons


Lost in the Forrest


Lawless – John Hillcoat

Stupid men, doing stupid things, in very stupid ways, for pretty stupid reasons.

Hillcoat and screenplay writer Nick Cave re-unite after the gratuitously violent The Proposition to delight us with the gratuitously violent Lawless. I wrote this of that first film, much admired by some.

“A new genre – the reductionist film. Everything reduced to the essential. Intelligence, coherence, credible artistic purpose – out. Who needs ‘em? Real characters with credible motivation in purposeful action that engages? Forget it. Superfluous. Distil to the essential.

Lawless is more of the same. Supposedly based on a true story; but in fact based upon a book supposedly based on a true story – which is not the same thing at all. Lawless is a woman-free, testosterone-soaked world except for a couple of token female stereotypes. The sheer repetitive dumbness of almost everything that happens, shows what goes wrong when the civilising force of real women is absent. Men revert to homicidally dangerous little boys playing with guns and knives and the odd shovel or two.

Lawless will appeal to those, always guys, who ‘love’ Goodfellas so much they watch it time and time again. The only difference is that Scorcese’s is a brilliantly hateful film whereas Lawless is just hateful. What unifies them, and the Proposal by the way, is an underlying ‘bully-worship’ and an insidious, sentimental attitude towards violence – the more brutal, instinctively excessive and of course graphically stomach churning, the better.

America during the Depression: undergoing the 14 year catastrophic social experiment of banning people from consuming alcohol in the teeth of their determination to do so; with most States unwilling or unable to enforce the law, turning a blind eye towards wholesale abuse of it. The vacuum created by removing legitimate suppliers was instantly filled by manufacturing bootleggers and gangster distribution.

For the Bondurant Brothers – Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke – from TV’s Chicago Code) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), bootlegging is still an age old cottage industry for country folk with a suddenly massively increased market. Criminal gangs are beginning to turn it into an industry of big-time players. Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is a hair-dyeing, sweet-smelling sexually ambiguous dandy; a sadistically committed Chicago enforcer apparently torturing and shooting anyone on sight: sort of an early Mergers and Acquisitions guy – with guns. He sets his sights on the Bondurants because of their hard-men reputation locally.

The Bondurants are an unlikely trio: Forest is monosyllabic and menacing; Howard is merely menacing; and flaky young Jack is just a menace. When Jack gets an exemplary beating to within an inch of his life by Rakes, what passes for a plot in Cave’s vision, is set up. There’s a great deal of ‘a-man’s-gotta-do-what-a-man’s-gotta-doism’ in Lawless. And what Jake has to do, time and time again is rush off blindly to take on Rakes with no plan, strategy or coherent thought in his head. And of course he’s therefore a pushover. Howard and Forrest are so busy being hard and laconic that they do nothing to stop Jack behaving like a prat and then end up having to take absurd risks in rescuing him.

In a silly sub-plot Jack woos Clergyman’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikoswka) who appears to respond well to a bombastic half-wit with a death-wish. Maggie (Jessica Chastain) is an ex-Chicago stripper who fled the violence of the Windy City to embrace the peaceful environs of rural Virginia. Man was that a dumb move.

There are throat-cuttings, teeth-smashings, shovel-beatings galore. But Mr Cave’s, and/or Mr Hillcoat’s fevered brains hit a purple streak with the hot tar and feathering and ad hoc, un-anaethetised gonad-ectomy. The excised testicles of one of his men are then sent gift-wrapped to Rakes. Whether graphically imaginative, or gratuitously exploitative; either way we are left – like Rakes, but unlike his unfortunate henchman – with a load of b*llocks.

If Howard is anonymous and Jack a bit of a dick; Tom Hardy’s Forrest is at first monosyllabically menacing, but his performance just goes from monotone to monotonous. Convinced that he can’t be killed, Forrest, displaying all the strategic guile of his Gumpy namesake, just keeps blundering into places where eventually he gets his throat cut – ear-to-ear but miraculously missing the jugular. True to the conventions of this stuff, physical injury that would occasion weeks in hospital and months of convalescence in the real world is shaken off in 24 hours and then on with the murderous mayhem. Jack’s serial beating reduces to a few perfunctory bruises by the following day and after a couple of days, Forrest, his head virtually sewn back on with the best bit of rolled blanket stitching you’ll ever see, is ready for more.

When the brothers’ helper Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan: LaBeouf, DeHaan what the hell’s going on here?) lame from a bout of childhood rickets is despatched by Rakes so Jake of course goes ape and charges straight up to Rakes who is accompanied by 30 armed deputies and shielded by a dozen cars. Guess what happens? Duh! Rakes shoots the little twerp and utters the truest line of the movie “you are a foolish boy.” And then some.

Sentimentalising violence? Well with one of those ponderous voice-overs we see the survivors of the whiskey wars opining about what we are clearly invited to consider were the good old, bad old days. Kraysville – Virginia. Romanticising violence may be an American trope but it is also a masculine instinct we do too little to resist and indulge too much.

If you want to see a more honest portrayal of the contradictory realities of working class mores,though in an urban setting, save your money on Lawless and watch Ben Affleck’s superb Gone Baby Gone on Sky Anytime. It has probably the best opening sequence of any recent movie and its ending faces up to the truth of working class realities more with a sense of tragedy than the romanticised, macho mythology of Lawless.

The book Lawless is based on was written by Matt Bondurant, grandson of the real life Bondurants depicted. The book’s title? The Wettest County in the World. Just so.

Oh by the way, Gary Oldman is in it. I’m not sure why.


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