Thursday, August 30, 2012

Blood, Sweat, and Tears: LAWLESS

John Hillcoat’s Lawless has all the right ingredients to become a great movie, but lacks the focus to truly capitalize on these assets. His earlier films, muddy, blood-soaked outback western The Proposition and bombed-out, hardscrabble, post-apocalyptic The Road, were films so downbeat, atmospheric and tangibly grim that by the time the end credits rolled I felt like I had dirt crunching under my fingernails. Lawless, a promising based-on-a-true-story drama about three small-town, deep-South, bootlegging brothers in the age of Prohibition, is well cast, well photographed and contemplatively paced. By the end, though, it’s only conjured up a level of surface grime and narrative muddiness. It’s a nice try, but all this craftsmanship has gone into a finished product that’s mostly inert.

The moonshine-cooking brothers at the center of the film are a tough, monosyllabic World War I veteran (Tom Hardy), a brutish, bearded alcoholic (Jason Clarke), and a squirrely, dopey hothead (Shia LaBeouf). They run their operation with the full cooperation of the local sheriff, but one day, in swoops a preening big-city representative of the law (Guy Pearce, sans eyebrows). It’s a setup not unlike a Western, with charismatic guys strutting around, hands on their hips, fingers brushing just above heavy holsters. There are pretty women – a recent arrival who works the bar (Jessica Chastain) and the preacher’s shy daughter (Mia Wasikowska) – a local cripple boy who helps out the criminals (Dane DeHaan), and a stately, blunt crooked official (Gary Oldman). Then, here comes the stranger who threatens the small town’s lawless, but weirdly stable, state.

The script by Nick Cave (a musician who also wrote the fiddle-and-banjo folk-music score) is full of vague, evocative mumbling and perplexing character relationships that are at once sharply simple and complex, given to halting development. The plot moves forward in long, languorous periods of stillness and sporadic rise-to-modest-riches montage interrupted only by gory splashes of violence. The film is effectively one of introductions and set-ups that sometimes wind their long, slow way to some sort of resolution. It’s sporadically effective, in short bursts of righteous anger, in which bloodied louts reappear in startling moments of retribution, and scenes in which flawed antiheroes and worse villains clash in a warped cops-and-criminals routine. At best, it’s a film that’s like a backwoods Boardwalk Empire.

But for all the picturesque dusty roads, lush forest landscapes, period detail, and vividly inarticulate performances, the film remains static and unfocused. It’s hard to watch a film introduce such formidable talents as Mia Wasikowska and Gary Oldman in separate striking scenes – the former in an impeccably sound-designed church service, and the latter in a tommy-gun assault down the middle of Main Street – and then thoroughly squander their characters. They fade into the background. Wasikowska lives out an undernourished romantic subplot while Oldman just flat out disappears after two scenes or so. But that’s just indicative of the film’s unfocused approach to storytelling that doggedly refuses to allow clarity into the characterizations. Take Chastain, for instance, who simply floats through the margins and, despite experience some horrific (off-screen) abuse, exists only so that Tom Hardy can have someone other than his brothers to grunt at.

To some extent, I was willing to follow the aimless nature of the film simply because Hillcoat is such a strong director. There is considerable craftsmanship here, striking images, impressive sequences, stunning shots. What’s lacking, ultimately, is a reason to care. By the time the film dead ends in a climactic confrontation, I found myself realizing that I still knew very little about these characters, even as I bristled at the uncomfortable, ill-fitting ugliness that warps the whole thing into a pat clash between good and evil, with the scrappy small town criminals fighting back against a slimy federal influence. It’s a strange note to end on, but no stranger than the wistful epilogue that follows. This is a film that’s well made on every technical level, but deeply confused about what it’s about. It’s a film about rough, violent entrepreneurs and slick, violent lawmen and yet remains uncommitted as to what it wants to say about that, if anything at all.

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