by Glenn Lovell
“Lawless” is the best Michael Cimino film not directed by Michael Cimino.
Like Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” and “Heaven’s Gate,” this new release is a richly appointed family saga that doles out heartland mythology, old-time religion, star-crossed romance and thick, gooey swaths of the red stuff. The big difference: “Lawless” director John Hillcoat doesn’t allow his narrative to wander aimlessly and jump the tracks as Cimino is wont to do. Hillcoat, aka Mr. Grim-Faced (see “The Proposition” and his much-underrated “The Road”), once again packs three hours of story into just under two hours of screen time.
And what a rousing ride it is!
Loosely based on Matt Bondurant’s novel celebrating the outrageous exploits of his grandfather Jack Bondurant and great-uncles Forrest and Howard, “Lawless” unfolds in the backwoods of Virginia in the 1930s, when Prohibition was the law of the land and “white lightning” slaked a nation’s unquenchable thirst. Franklin County ‒ “the wettest county in the world” ‒ has so many stills in them thar hills their fires polka dot the night like a string of Christmas lights.
Obviously with such a high-profile business, “the laws” ‒ as Bonnie and Clyde tagged them ‒ are going to want more than a taste.
Most of the bootleggers roll over when the local sheriff and a Special Deputy from Chicago named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) demand a piece of the action, but not Forrest (Tom Hardy), the eldest, meanest and most resilient of the Bondurant boys. “I’m a Bondurant,” he reminds his neighbors. “We don’t bow down to anyone.” Later, he tells his runty kid brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf), who has a penchant for picking fights he can’t finish: “We’re survivors, we control the fear. Without the fear, we’re as good as dead.”
And so the stage is set for an all-out war between the hillbillies and the sadistic dandy Rakes, who metes out justice (read ritualistic torture) with glint in his eye. Watching from the sidelines ‒ and eventually siding with the Bondurants ‒ is the notorious gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman, making the best of an underdeveloped role).
“Lawless” ‒ easily one of the most impressive films of the year — proves a feast for the eyes and ears. It has been impeccably designed by Chris Kennedy, costumed by Margot Wilson, photographed (in the style of an old, tattered family album) by Benoit Delhomme, and scored by Warren Ellis and rocker-screenwriter Nick Cave, who meld foot-stompin’ blue grass with country and gospel.
The performances almost across the board are rock solid. Hardy, who gets better with each film, exudes the quiet foreboding of a young Paul Newman (think Newman as the half-breed in “Hombre”). His seemingly invincible Forrest grunts a syllable or two on special occasions, but then you don’t have to say much when your brass-knuckles punch does the talking. LaBeouf, who I still haven’t warmed to, shows considerable range this time out, playing Jack first as the annoying kid brother, then, as he starts running blockades, a Pretty Boy Floyd manqué, and finally a young man of conviction and grit.
Not surprisingly, given the testosterone coursing through this movie, the women-folk come off as little more than stereotypical afterthoughts. Jessica Chastain plays the city girl with a past who takes a shine to Forrest, and Mia Wasikowska is the rebellious preacher’s daughter who’s won over by Jack’s souped-up Model T and sporty new duds.
My only complaint ‒ and it’s a big one ‒ is in the handling of the violence. This material cries out for a hard-R rating, but fearing the MPAA (did they threaten an X?) Hillcoat repeatedly blunts the bloodletting by showing someone beaten to a pulp ‒ with fist, boot, shovel ‒ and emerge with hardly a scratch. This gives one of the grimmest movies of the year a sort of “Hey, just kiddin’!” Road Runner quality. Let’s hope this is addressed in the inevitable unrated director’s cut.
LAWLESS ✮✮✮ With Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman. Directed by John Hillcoat; scripted by Nick Cave from the Matt Bondurant novel. 116 min. Rated R (for profanity, nudity, and fairly graphic depictions of violence, including torture and a throat-slashing)