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One hears the word “pulp” thrown around a lot these days, often used as a way of defending something safe, unoriginal, and silly by placing it as part of some nebulous “tradition,” or delineating it from arty art into a category primarily concerned with entertainment. Really it’s become a term used to lazily diffuse criticism, but it can be safely applied to Lawless, a film told with familiar techniques in an interesting, not-frequently exploited set of surroundings. This film is pulp, and that suggests that it is small, fun, shallow, but not without the small bit of poetry and invention that made each individual little pulp story worth hearing, reading, or watching.

The pedigree of Lawless undoubtedly suggested a search for something more profound though- it’s cast with actors like Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain and Shia LeBoauf giving it his all, performed from a script by the gothic maestro Nick Cave, directed by the dark texturist John Hillcoat, all to adapt a notably violent book that digs deep into the fictionalized backgrounds of the very real Bondurant rumrunners of Franklin County, Virginia. All of these gears working in sync might have produced a true classic gangster film, one tackling the production and delivery network that existed outside of the cities during prohibition, when liquor stills dotted the countryside and produced cheap alcohol to be carted to the cities and sold at a premium. This allowed backwood inhabitants to carve out a livelihood while remaining largely independent of the metropolitan crime rings, that is, until a slick Special Agent like Guy Pearce’s Charlie Rakes saunters into town, backed by a badge but scheming on a thinly veiled mission to tax the illicit trade rather than shut it down.

Guy Pearce’s effete, coiffed agent is entirely an invention of the movie (the book’s story features almost no outsiders, instead focusing on a grudge between locals and law enforcement) but he is –oddly– one of the mechanisms Cave uses to make the story more safe and approachable. When you’re trying to tell a story of a bunch of backwoods gangsters with pretty much no redeeming value, what is there to do but bring in a bigger psychopath with nastier intentions and a funny accent to pit them against?

This is the great flaw of Lawless- we’re asked to see romance in the story of brotherly outlaws backed into a corner, but there’s not much here except assholes eating each other. The Bondurant Boys –LaBeouf’s Jack, Hardy’s Forrest, and Jason Clarke’s Howard– are not shown as men with a big family they’re supporting or a community they’re improving, but instead we’re told they’re local legends. The film starts in the Bondurant’s corner though, and they’re humanized very quickly, rendering all the talk of “immortality” as mere folklore, while our young protagonist Jack feels the very familiar stinging need to prove himself to his brothers. His story will develop into the familiar tale of quick money, nice clothes, impressing the girl, and overstepping one’s boundaries.

Forrest meanwhile, is the endearingly gruff older brother who we respect for not laying down to the new gun in town, but will ultimately do some terrible things in this story. None of the brothers are explored with any particular depth (the brother Howard could have been replaced by a pitbull or something without changing the story much), so while we might generally sympathize with them since it is their story and all, the dynamic only functions because the villain is so spectacularly cruel and talks like a total fag. It’s pretty lame stoytelling that doesn’t have the guts to characterize the Bondurants as ruthless gangsters and just dig into a story of escalation between outlaws and greedy G-men, and instead weakly paints it as a struggle between chaotic good and lawful evil.

Lawless also stumbles when it becomes one of those movies where a montage starts up and one starts stomping on an invisible break pedal, watching what would be all the interesting stuff that make up a great story zoom by beneath upbeat music. Once Jack makes a connection that allows the Bondurants to up production (which has little to do with the special agents that have just shown up to, presumably, make a story happen) the family scales up their operation, but all that fun gangster action and all those interesting negotiations and such are all just clips for the montage.

Nick Cave, whose music is filled with interesting, violent folk stories and depraved poetry, does imbue a lot of individual scenes with the rural texture he’s so adept at singing about, so the film is not entirely without some unique country character. Much of the courting between Jack and Mia Wasikowska’s Bertha has a nice feel to it, and a scene here and there feels like it’s reaching for something greater in terms of character development or poetic reinforcement of the film’s idea. From the man who made the brilliant album Murder Ballads and wrote the beautifully bleak The Proposition though, you’d expect Lawless to find more places to dig deeper, go meaner, or otherwise make itself worthy of a good folk song at least, but its handle on its story is far too sloppy. Admittedly, if examined in a vacuum, the climax feels worthy of a more epic gangster story, as sides collide, bullets fly, and we see Franklin Co., Virginia manifest as something like a living organism rejecting a foreign body, the county literally, violently expelling a cancer. If only everything leading there wasn’t so clumsy…

For the most part, Hillcoat’s direction is straightforward, the pacing is brisk, the performances solid. This doesn’t have the look of a profound country tale, even if Delhomme, the film’s cinematographer, is able to use the gobs of sunlight coating his Georgia locations to capture a rural story with the Alexa without it feeling too digital. The performances are certainly up to snuff and go a long way towards selling these underwritten characters, but nobody is doing their best work here, and Oldman in particular is shamefully wasted.

The biggest hurdle that a film like Lawless faces is that this kind of storytelling has been deconstructed, rewritten, subverted and aggrandized by a decade of excellent movies and –to an even greater extent– television. The bar has been raised for crime drama, and even a period setting doesn’t go very far anymore. When any given episode of Boardwalk Empire covers more ground and manages both broader and more acute character development, Hillcoat and Cave needed to step up their game. This needed to be a film slathered in texture, unafraid of real darkness, and mercilessly engineered around a very human theme. Cave and Hillcoat would have been the guys to do it, but be it budget, timing, or the stars failing to align, Lawless simply doesn’t have the kick of real backwoods Virginia hooch.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

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