Chet Greason, Popcornucopia
Gangster movies are a lot like Westerns in that, despite reusing familiar settings and stock characters in film after film, the genres never seem to get old. Somehow, unlike any other period piece, Westerns and gangster movies keep surprising and entertaining us.
This can be said for Lawless, the newest gangster flick currently out in theatres. There have been numerous crime dramas that focus on the illicit booze industry during the brief period of prohibition in the United States, especially in Chicago and New York. Lawless mixes things up by changing the focus from urban distributors like Al Capone and looking instead to rural hooch manufacturers in the Ozark Mountains.
In this way, we’re introduced to some new gangster-era characters we haven’t seen before. Too often, the mountain people of the Ozarks are depicted as illiterate, shoeless, and racist hillbillies. Director John Hillcoat populates his film instead with thinking, feeling, and downright devious rural folk, whose slow way of talking hides a fierce need for independence and a strict code of honour, even in the face of Chicago-bred bullies (although the racism remains).
Shia LaBeouf stars as Jack Bondurant, the youngest of a trio of brothers said to be indestructible. The story follows Jack overcoming his cowardice to hold his own alongside his braver brothers, Forrest and Howard, played by Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke respectively.
Perhaps it’s his prior roles, but I have a hard time accepting LaBeouf as anything but an unappealing goof. If there’s anything in Lawless that, I feel, should’ve been done differently, it would be the choice to focus on Jack at the detriment of exploring the characters of his more interesting older brothers, especially drunkard Howard, who is relegated to a minor, comedic role.
Still, Hardy, hot on the tail of his turn as villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, shows off his chops as quiet, grunting, and unkillable Forrest. Hardy is quickly becoming Hollywood’s most talented chameleon, portraying vastly different and unendingly interesting characters.
Guy Pearce, another talented actor known for his range, plays effeminate bad guy Charley Rakes. Looking a lot like Bob Geldof in Pink Floyd’s film version of their album The Wall, Pearce is threatening, unfair, and narcissistic. A perfect, detestable villain.
Gary Oldman also appears as gangster Floyd Banner, although very briefly. Again, more Oldman and less LaBeouf might have made Lawless, already a great movie, even better.
The already fine cast is rounded out by Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, and Dane DeHaan.
Music fans may be interested to know that the script was penned by musician Nick Cave of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Grinderman. Those already familiar with his brooding, emotional music will understand the equally brooding tone of Lawless. The plunking, bluegrass soundtrack of the film, also by Cave alongside Warren Ellis, is another highlight worth mentioning.
Perhaps it’s a populace, told that they’re living in a free culture yet feeling oppressed by restrictive policies, that helps to make gangster-era tales of unlawful heroism popular. Whatever the reason, I know I’ll continue seeing them.