Review: Lawless

Well, here’s a rarity: how many westerns take place in the East? In a time where alcohol was outlawed during the Prohibition, of course, no town was safe from man’s efforts to smuggle and sell his dearest of substances. Thus, the wettest county in the world happened to be located in the heart of Franklin County, Virginia, about as far away from the traditional west as one might imagine. To director John Hillcoat, however, transporting the western away from its geographical roots is nothing new, for his debut feature, The Proposition, took place worlds away in the Australian Outback. While Lawless does not approach the thematic depths and resonance of that film, its blend of gangster and western tropes, coupled with tenacious performances make for a muscular genre picture.

“It is not the violence that sets man apart. It is the distance he is prepared to go.” argues Forrest Bondurant, the middle of three brothers who produce moonshine like bees make honey. It is this motto that perhaps best characterizes the thematic unison of John Hillcoat’s trio of films thus far, all of which feature violent acts, but all with characters whose moral boundaries are tested. Such is the character arc of Jack Bondurant, the youngest brother, played with typical verve by Shia LaBeouf. Though the Bondurants enjoyed much financial success during the Prohibition, its twilight is upon them, in addition to the arrival of an out of town deputy, in a deliciously slimy turn by Guy Pearce. Forrest, as portrayed with powerful stoicism by Tom Hardy, is the moral and financial backbone of the family, and sees to it that his brothers stay in line. When Jack sees an opportunity to prove his worth and sell the family liquor to alternative sources, such as Gary Oldman’s local gangster, a war on all sides begins to brew. Shootouts and bloody battles aplenty run through the Virginia wilderness of Lawless like blood, and men on both sides suffer the consequences of their actions. Though this is largely a man’s world, women are also present occasionally, in the form of Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, but they remain largely in the background. Indeed, the narrative is fairly straightforward, if not quite predictable, but the film has an awful good time relishing in its genre trappings.

Though he may not have a particular personal style of his own, John Hillcoat’s visuals in his films are consistently representative of the genre and location they occur. Bloody reds and sun soaked oranges define The Proposition and monochromatic grays and blacks seep into the desolation of The Road. It is an interesting choice, then, that Hillocoat opts for a strikingly naturalistic look for Lawless. Little here is vibrant or outwardly defined, and the colors largely muted. This is a stark contrast from almost all Hollywood films today, whose saturated color schemes often threaten to overwhelm the visuals over the story. The period designs here are also realistically integrated, only purposefully popping out upon narrative obligations. What does dominate in Lawless is the soundtrack, for though Virginia is only midway down the East Coast, it is nevertheless a Southern state, and so country and folk music provide a voice to the characters and the narrative, Despite a few flaws such as Jack’s useless voiceover, much of Lawless is quite well executed, and the narrative is often engaging. However, the film lacks resonance at its conclusion, which may not be required given the pulpiness of the tale. It may not be a genre classic, but it certainly is fine entertainment.


~ by romancinema on September 25, 2012.

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