Lawless [Blu-Ray]

John Hillcoat

BY Scott A. GrayPublished Nov 30, 2012

Australian director John Hillcoat has a knack for constructing visually striking, subtle examinations of popular American filmmaking genres known for their myth-building. He took on the western with The Proposition and post-apocalyptic survival with The Road, now with Lawless, the man who cut his teeth shooting music videos for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds puts his thoughtful spin on prohibition-era outlaws. Steady collaborator Cave ably handles scripting duties, based on a fictionalization of historical events that took place in Franklin County, VA, as described in the book The Wettest County in the World. Written by Matt Bondurant, the story recounts the bootlegging exploits of his grandfather Jack, the youngest of local legends the Bondurant brothers. On the surface, Lawless is both a potent look at the power dynamics between siblings and a story about a prideful class of workingman that refuses to be bullied by authority. In Hillcoat's hands, the tale takes on understated aspects of folklore. These are men who survived extraordinary circumstances and recognized the power awe and fear have to shape perception — propagating their myths is a protective measure, as is their proactive aggression. Who would want to tangle with a reputed immortal that can punch a man clear across the room? Aided by his carefully concealed use of brass knuckles, Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) is treated the most like the subject of a tall tale, though brother Howard's feral dramatics earn him a larger-than-life reputation. These little reality fudges extend to the outlandish depiction of psychotic big-city deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce, a vicious, effeminate Mysophobia sufferer with shaved eyebrows). If taken literally, his character seems excessive, but when you consider how a story would be passed down about the sadistic, perfume-wearing villain who shot your granddaddy and great uncle, the exaggeration is perfectly in step with the rest of the film's broken telephone mythologizing. On the technical front, the art design, lighting, costuming and cinematography are gorgeous, but it's the legion of powerhouse character actors that steal the show. From reliable veterans like Gary Oldman to rising talents like Dane DeHaan (Chronicle), each cast member crafts a distinct and astutely realized personality, no matter the amount of screen time. Even the regularly annoying Shia LaBeouf steps up his game to play with the big boys in the lead role of Jack. It helps that he's cast as an awkward try-hard attempting to prove himself worthy of his much more capable peers, playing what he knows. The special features of Lawless primarily focus on the history of Franklin County's moonshine trade and where fact and fiction blend in this depiction of the Bondurant family. "The True Story of the Wettest County in the World" is a little clip-heavy, at times, but between Hillcoat, Nick Cave, Matt Bondurant and Guy Pearce there's a great deal of insight about the film's themes. "Then & Now" takes a brief look at the social, economic and geographic conditions that made Franklin County such an ideal environment for 'shine cooking and "The Story of the Bondurant Family" is a tour of the historical documents Matt used to construct his take on events and the personalities of his ancestors. A handful of deleted scenes are better than most that suffer the editor's axe, but a Willie Nelson music video plays like little more than a weak movie trailer. Of greater value, a thorough commentary track with Hillcoat and Matt Bondurant goes a long way towards clearing up just how "based on a true story" the tale is and is quite revealing of the director's process and intentions. Highly recommend, but just short of excellence.

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