Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
As is standard for many films of its genre, John Hillcoat’s Lawless puts the viewer in the position of cheering on the “bad guys” and despising the “good guys” by making the criminals honorable in some sense and displaying the corruptibility of law-enforcers. No surprise that a gangster-meets-western film about famous bootlegging brothers titled Lawless would feature the sense in which all of humanity has and will act lawlessly. The morally dissonant western doesn’t bother me. But, early in the film, Lawless seems to take the perceived incoherence of civilization’s manner of order, and ascribe it to a more cosmic lawlessness. We’re told early on that “we got about as much sense as a bird flyin’ in the sky”–that is, we float along and the winds of chance take us where they may; the film seems fervent in suggesting that human ontology is whittled down to “survivor” status. Of course, the words are put in the mouths of its lawless, if at times endearingly valiant, characters, but for the film’s duration, the ascription remains unchallenged at best.
Based on Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World, Lawless is set in Franklin County, Virginia in 1931 during the prohibition era. It follows the story of Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Jack (Shia LeBeuouf)–three bootlegging brothers–as they run a moonshine business which is threatened by just-arrived Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce). Of course, Rakes doesn’t want to shut down the illegal activity so much as he wants to use his position of authority to extort the county gangs for profit. When Rakes encounters resistance from the three brothers, he decides to intimidate through repeated instances of ruthless violence–including severely beating youngest brother Jack into a pulp. What follows is a kind of ironic eye-for-an-eye lawlessness on the basis of a turf war constituted by sending messages and counter-messages. Throw in a couple of romance and get-the-girl stories (enter Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska), along with a “little brother’s” aspirations to be an unruly legend, and you’ve got a fairly entertaining plot.
Through convincing setting and all-around excellent performances, Hillcoat shows himself fully capable of drawing the viewer into the world he’s created. Lawless is compelling in a way that evokes interest in its characters and the particulars of its environment and not merely its spectacle. Yet, the problem, as A.O. Scott puts it, is that the film never establishes a worthwhile “dramatic purpose.” Once I was drawn in, I didn’t find much to take with me except brutal exhibitions of violence. Afterward, I didn’t feel much else besides battered. And this is particularly bolstered by one scene which shows two of the brothers going well beyond defending themselves to take a ghastly revenge. Film critic Michael Leary comments over at the Arts and Faith film forum that the scene is “the dark heart of the film”:
We are initially seduced by Forrest’s brand of familial loyalty and resistance to the base elements of his industry. He is presented to us as a sort of moral center to the film. At least, his attempts to protect his brother and his barkeep feel chivalrous – in contrast to the duplicity of local cops, gangsters, and the creepy lawman. But then this scene happens, in which great violence is suggested, as if the film wants to retract that initial idea that there is a moral center somewhere in this story. We think differently of Forrest after that.
Leary goes on to suggest that this instance seemed like a setup, a form of subtle audience manipulation to make a point about the final moral incoherence of justice and violence in the world. I agree with Leary here. In fact, I would suggest it’s a move which is repeated in the end of the film (Spoiler Alert). After being given the sense that Forrest is indestructible, we’re led into a happy ending in which the three brothers are married with children and living peacefully on the land. But it’s another trap. Forrest goes down to have a moment of uncharacteristically joyful dancing by the frozen lake–only to fall in and die of pneumonia three weeks later. The happening is narrated this way: “In the end, it was dumb luck and pneumonia that got him–simple and indifferent.”
I think there’s supposed to be a parable somewhere in here about the American Dream propped up by rebelliously protecting individual rights, but the problem is that any good here is subverted because “rights” are ultimately rendered difficult to reconcile if human dignity is not rooted in a sanctified purpose embedded in the created order. This story’s events may be true and in some ways artfully depicted, but they’re presented in such a way that leaves me feeling, well, cold.