Truly Lawless Storytelling

According to Aristotle, the first law of storytelling is that plot reigns over all other elements.   Plot needs to be better conceived and executed than production design, more profound psychologically than any actor’s performance, and more shocking than any gory spray of blood across the screen.

The second law of storytelling is that characters are rendered relatable to viewers by displaying a fundamental morality, propriety, consistency and truth.  Viewers just won’t meld with main characters that are evil, weird, unknowable and false.  And if the viewers don’t meld with the characters, then they end up in the emotionally unsatisfying place of watching a story as opposed to experiencing it.

The third law of storytelling is that stories are not histories.  In an indispensable and courageous act known as authorial point-of-view, stories take facts about places or events or people and organize them around a theme.  This is what makes a 12th Century knight’s armor chink, or a silly girl lost in a rabbit hole, or a woman in Russia being chased by an ideologue, a poet and a capitalist, my problem.   Point of view takes courage because it involves the author coming down on one side or another about the relative goodness or badness of the choices related.  Taking a position is the big risk you get paid for as a storyteller.

And finally, another key law of storytelling is that spectacle is not the protein, but only the salt.  Too much salt overwhelms the dish and renders it unpalatable.

So, when I say that The Weinstein Company’s latest release is truly lawless, I’m saying, stay away if you like your movies to be good stories, well told.

Even before we get to the moral problems of the spectacular violence in Lawless, its more inexcusable failing is that the movie comes down to just another sad example of tragic waste.  Hollywood really, really, really ought to know better by now.  The audience sure does.  So, why can’t all the producers, directors and executives figure it out?

Lawless is a damn waste of wonderful acting talent which includes the deservedly ubiquitous Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowski, and the “where’ve you been all my life?” hunky, Tom Hardy, and the always fascinatingly creepy, Guy Pearce and lastly, everybody’s younger brother, Shia LaBeouf.  The movie makes the mistake of hoping great actors are going to make characters doing morally problematic or even awful things, sympathetic.  In this case, the movie sets up as our protagonists as the following: a family of contentious bootleggers, a former trashy lounge entertainer, and a repressed quasi-Amish girl, and expects that we will like them because the story needs us to.  We never attach to the characters in Lawless, because even really pretty actors aren’t enough to make us forgive characters for their ignorance and stupid choices.  Is that really that complicated to fathom?  And yet movie after movie founders on the audacity of this particular hope.   Still, the talented cast here absolutely adds a quality of fascination to the piece.  I probably wouldn’t get tired of watching Tom Hardy pick his toenails – he’s that, you know,  hot.  But his character’s family struggle never became mine.

Principally, the story gets trumped by the very thing that is its strongest suit.  The recreation of the bootlegging era is perfectly and wonderfully executed.  Every little detail of the making of booze, the period cars and style of dress, the rusty nails on the porch and the grease in Guy Pearce’s ‘Snidely Whiplash’ hairstyle have been lovingly realized.  But a living photograph does not a good movie make.  The filmmakers got so caught up in making it all look perfect, that they glossed over the fact that the plot events were not coming together to create a believably motivated transformational arc for the main character.  (And, by the way, did I mention that I came away not even sure who the main character is, they all change so not or little?)

As always with stories in which the narrative is failing to elicit real emotion, the filmmakers here try and summon up the cheapest of emotion through the depiction of mostly sudden and horrific brutality.  I confess, Lawless took me into fresh new territory by showing me what a freshly excised scrotum looks like rolling across the floor.  Ah yes!  Emasculation as entertainment.  How did we get through the Golden Age without it?  In Lawless, human suffering is made the primary spectacle.  It is more than excessive.  It actually gets boring the way throwing up all night gets tryingly “will this every stop-ish?”

So, despite our love for this wonderful cast, and despite the loving recreation of the era, we find the movie Lawless, guilty of crimes against The Poetics.  It oughta be locked up.

  • Norris

    Tom who?

  • Tim Jones

    Thank you.

  • http://www.danielkenney.com Daniel Kenney

    Barbara,

    Well written review with great insight. Hope to read more of you here on Patheos! Do you have any examples of violent/action movies where you really loved the story telling and the transformational arc of the main character? Would love to check out some of your picks.

    • Norris

      Violent movie with great story and transformational arc of main character? How about “The Godfather”?

    • barbaranicolosi

      Blade Runner; Unforgiven; Rocky; Apocalypse Now; The Usual Suspects; On the Waterfront; Fargo; Miller’s Crossing; Schindler’s List;

  • http://PoetAndPriest.com Paul Hughes

    Speaking as a writer, this was a great mix of helpful (clear, brief, ensampled) advice and counsel; speaking as a moviegoer, I appreciated the presenting of the elements of this especial film, without “giving away” the ending, or whatnot. Although I guess we all know how this comes out … namely, not at all. Thanks much.

  • Coast Ranger

    Loved the clear explication of the three (or four) laws of storytelling that opened this review.

    If it is hard to articulate the laws of fiction, it is immensely harder to execute them.

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