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John Drew

Lawless (2012) formerly Wettest County - John Hillcoat and Nick Cave

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Just caught Hillcoat and Cave's first collaboration The Proposition tonight, and was curious to see if Cave had written any other screenplays. Wettest County is what popped up. A depression era tale of bootleggers vs. the law, that Cave adapted from the novel The Wettest County in the World: A Novel Based on True Story by Matt Bondurant, which is a fictionalized account of the moonshine running days of the author's grandfather and granduncles. Pretty solid cast.

Edited by Baal_T'shuvah

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An early review by The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney from Cannes -

After proving to be a problematic fit for the grim post-apocalyptic existentialism of The Road, director John Hillcoat is back on more fertile turf with Lawless, a muscular slice of grisly Americana rooted in flavorful Prohibition-era outlaw legend. While a touch overlong and not as distinctive as his last collaboration with screenwriter Nick Cave, the Australian Western The Proposition, the new film is more commercially accessible, fueled by a brooding sense of dread, visceral bursts of violence, potent atmosphere and some juicy character portraits from a robust cast....

...The nominal lead figure in the dark ensemble drama is Jack Bondurant, probably the most standard role but one that yields more accomplished work than pretty much anything Shia LaBoeuf has done to date. However, it’s the characters around Jack that supply much of the texture, notably his brothers, the taciturn, philosophizing Forrest (Tom Hardy) and hooch-swilling punisher Howard (Jason Clarke). No less vital contributions come from Guy Pearce as a corrupt, dandified lawman, who has no qualms about spilling blood so long as it doesn’t splash his bespoke suits, and Gary Oldman in a brief but lip-smacking turn as Chicago bobster Floyd Banner....

...As in The Proposition, Cave’s contribution extends to an indispensable score, co-written with Warren Ellis. (The team also provided music for Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a film that some will no doubt say the less nuanced Lawless aspires to be.) Their score here mixes rootsy bluegrass, gospel, country and contemporary songs reinterpreted by Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley, among others.

If Lawless doesn’t achieve the mythic dimensions of the truly great outlaw and gangster movies, it is a highly entertaining tale set in a vivid milieu, told with style and populated by a terrific ensemble. For those of us who are suckers for blood-soaked American crime sagas from that era, those merits will be plenty.

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Few reviews are hugely positive, but most critics seemed to think it was decent. I'm guessing it'll be sorta like a Southern version of The Town--at least in terms of quality. Which isn't as good as I hoped--I loved The Proposition, and that cast is to die for--but it'll do.

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Based on the trailer alone, the film looks pretty messy.

I can't kick the feeling that the film will be decent, but pretty flawed at the same time.

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I'm seeing this next week. Looking forward to it!

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I saw this film Monday, saw The Bourne Legacy a day later, and by today (Thursday) would gladly discuss the former at length and would have little to say about the latter. Which is to say, without reviewing it, that it's a more interesting film, and that based on the discussions I've had with a couple of critics since seeing Lawless, it appears to spark something in its fans that makes them eager to talk about the film. That should make for interesting discussions about Lawless here.

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I've been excited to see this one, Christian. Looking forward to it and the subsequent discussion.

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Nicholas, I should note that I saw a screening attended by the author of the book on which the film is based. He's local. He was there with his father. The theater was in D.C., just over the river from Virginia, and the story takes place in Franklin County, Va. That's well southwest of where I live, but not far from where I went to college.

My point is that seeing a film set in my home state and with a crowd comprised in some unknown measure of Virginians surely had some impact on me and any critical "impartiality" that others from outside the state might bring to the film. The story isn't necessarily flattering to Virginians, BTW, but we're a prideful lot :).

The post-screening discussion was moderated by the "State of Northern Virginia" blogger for the Washington Post. His write-up of the event is here.

More background here.

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If you read only one review of Lawless, make it this Greecine review, posted today, which weighs the movies flaws against its strengths quite nicely:

This is violence for its own kinetic sake, most exhilaratingly in a good old-fashioned '80s style montage. Jack kicks his car into gear, and the belch the exhaust it gives off is robust enough to propel the camera backwards in response, the kickoff to prolonged mayhem with no distracting plot points. It's a higher-class affair than usual, to be sure, with Ralph Stanley singing "White Light/White Heat," but it's still a rowdy assembly of speeding jalopies and flying bullets.

The center of the film is mush, somehow never settling upon a single character or cluster of interests. The brothers' relationship is summed up in a single shot which cuts from Shia getting his hair messed-up to a cockfight in their driveway. That's about as deep as characterization goes, but the (incongruously) gorgeously shot violence is a great deal of fun. There will be massive, gratuitous gasoline-fueled explosions and an eyebrow-less Pearce howling "It's time for me to take out the trash." Forget The Expandables 2: this is the revivalist action movie of the summer.

Pearce is great in this film. So is Hardy.

Edited by Christian

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The audience I saw the film with last night burst into laughter on three occasions, all of them having to do with Hardy's character (and two of them also having to do with Chastain's character). I wasn't entirely sure whether the movie had *intended* those laughs.

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Peter, the audience I saw it with also laughed at the Tom Hardy character in a few instances. I can't remember how to do spoiler blackouts in the text here, but I'm sure the scenes were the same with both audiences. I've heard that the character is described in the book as, uh, able to get out of jams, but when I read that description, I wasn't sure whether that was intended to be humorous in the book, much less the movie. Judging from other critics I've heard from on the film, no one seems to be holding this against the film, as though the absurdity of some of it ruined the film's tone. I think people view it, in an odd way, as a form of comic relief. But I'm really not sure.

Edited by Christian

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Getting killed in the comments under my review of this one, and feeling some remorse for being less than careful with my conclusion. Ah well, can't take it back.

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Getting killed in the comments under my review of this one, and feeling some remorse for being less than careful with my conclusion. Ah well, can't take it back.

Don't feel any remorse about your recommendation.

Not a single one of those comments is based on anything other than the assumption that "a Christian perspective" equals never recommending any film with the bad language or nudity that you warned the readers about in your review. (Well, it does look like at least one of the comments is also coming from the sentiments of the 1870s Women's Christian Temperance Union - what with the Bondurant brothers being "lawless men" and all.) This is a popularized church perspective you are always bound to run across at publications like crosswalk.com. While I disagree with it, it's not really a reason to really make fun of the commenters any more than it is for you to change your mind about any film.

Personally, it's simply been my reflexive avoidance of Shia LaBeouf's starring screen presence that's kept me from the film, but since you say the rest of the cast around him still makes it worth it, I'll have to give it a try.

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Thanks, Persiflage. I'd love to hear your thoughts. I'm a little surprised that the film isn't generating more discussion, although I realize it only just opened. (I saw it a few weeks ago.)

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I mentioned this review, and the comments, on my Facebook page. I believe you'll see a few more comments now from people who know the difference between depicting a behavior and recommending a behavior.

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Oh, gosh, thanks. [blushing]

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I'm a little surprised that the film isn't generating more discussion, although I realize it only just opened.

FWIW Christian I am planning to see Lawless sometime this week.

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So I went and saw this last night actually. Thoughts:

- Tom Hardy steals the show hands down. The audience in the theater simply loved him. Ever since Inception, he's been one of the most interesting new actors on the screen. Warrior and This Means War notwithstanding, there is good reason to look forward to whatever he does next. The best of film directors should take notice. His Forrest Bondurant is a character that does much with very little - pretty much just grunts and "ums." The script of this film may be decent, but the film just wouldn't be the same without his presence.

- Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Jason Clarke, and Mia Wasikowska all make for an excellent and lively supporting cast. I did know that Chastain's mere presence in a room could change everything. I didn't know that Pearce could giggle maniacally. But, to top it all off, we then also have Gary Oldman chewing the scenery every time he appears on the screen. I don't know how he does it exactly. Maybe it's something in his eyes, but his villains are night and day different from Commissioner Gordon. Oldman carries himself as Gordon as someone you feel is good, reliable and of deep personality integrity. Oldman as Floyd Banner exudes danger and his eyes literally glitter with a sort of charismatic muderous intent.

- Replacing Shia LaBeouf with a good actor could have raised the entire film up a whole grade. He is the film's greatest weakness, and, to give him credit, he probably does some of his best work in this one. Somehow, because he's the supposed protagonist, he gets a lot of screen time and most of his scenes then slow to a crawl (unless Hardy or Oldman are in the scene).

- I probably appreciate this film more for having lived in Virginia. I've been to these places and had dinners and celebrations with these people. I've seen the farms, shops, businesses and land run by large traditional families. I've seen and visited with the Amish or German Baptists. I've even been to a couple of their church services in Virginia. It's nice to know that in our modern world these people, with such old-world values, still exist. There is an abiding charm to a family that is so strongly tied to the place and the land that they are from. They have that rugged individualism and independence that is distinctly American and doesn't seem to have changed much over our 200 year history. The sense of local community in this film is strong and that makes this film different from every other Prohibition era/gangster film.

- I'm also a sucker for stories about three brother families. Given that's my family, films like this one (and like Defiance) always hit close to home. When you come from a stable family and develop very close bonds with your brothers, you find that you've developed a relationship with them that no one else seems to understand. You'd do anything for your brothers. If one of them is in any trouble at all, your entire existence seems pointless unless you can find him and stand at his side. When you live in a family of brothers, there is a pride and a strength in your family and in your family name that demands almost a fanatical loyalty. This is an attribute to the interaction between Forrest, Howard and Jack that the film understands.

- Another insight that is probably fundamentally determinative of how you are going to feel about this film is whether you believe it was morally wrong to engage in the liquor business during Prohibition.

- In fact, it makes all the difference between the Bondurant brothers actually being good guys or not. Many Americans, and I'm one of them, do not believe that breaking the law is always wrong. It's an understanding rooted all the way back in WIlliam Blackstone's distinction between malum in se and malum prohibitum. The idea is that sometimes the government makes and enforces laws that it is wrong (or outside the bounds of government) to make and enforce. If there is a law that is fundamentally against the nature and role of government, then it takes a particular type of person to really enforce such a law. There are further consequences of this belief, and I began discussing them in a review of Boardwalk Empire (I just need to finish it). One of the consequences is the right of self-defense in such a situation. It is this belief, combined with their traditional values and strong family, that allows you to root for the Bondurant brothers as really the good guys. The fact that they are outside the realm of the gangster even makes the situation more interesting.

- The film has a great soundtrack as well.

All in all, an enjoyable and rather old-fashioned film. It has heart. Come to think of it, as far as action/adventure movies go, I probably enjoyed it just as much, if not more, than this year's The Avengers.

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Persiflage wrote:

: - Tom Hardy steals the show hands down. The audience in the theater simply loved him.

Did they laugh during some of his scenes, as they did in my theatre (and apparently in Christian's)? I wouldn't say the laughers in my audience *loved* the character, per se, but I suppose some of them might have.

: - Another insight that is probably fundamentally determinative of how you are going to feel about this film is whether you believe it was morally wrong to engage in the liquor business during Prohibition.

That's an intriguing way of putting it. Clearly, it is never absolutely wrong to engage in liquor, per se, even if the state says it is. But to engage in the liquor *business*... well, that depends on what the business entails. And the state, by making liquor illegal, guaranteed that the only people who *would* engage in the business would be criminals. The only way to *survive* in that business was, in fact, to *become* a criminal, with all the murder and whatnot that that entailed. So, I'd be inclined to say that it *was* morally wrong to engage in that business (though it would not have been morally wrong to make liquor for your own personal consumption).

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Just linked to David Thomson's review, which -- spoiler alert! -- mentions one of the Forrest incidents that might have made people laugh, although I found it more shocking than humorous:

As Forrest Bondurant, Tom Hardy grunts and sighs; he has a funny bow-legged walk; he does a little shuffle dance on the bank of a river at night, and falls into the water. When his throat has been cut, he holds the two flaps of skin together and walks 20 miles to the hospital. He is “invincible,” as the legend goes, or he is an actor having the time of his life and suggesting that he might be capable of playing Charles Laughton one day.

EDIT: Man, to be able to write a summary sentence like this, buried in the middle of a paragraph in the middle of a review. Like it's easy:

So it’s a picture based on an old movie formula, sharply observed, played with relish, and unashamed of how far it is from any searching truth.

Edited by Christian

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: - Another insight that is probably fundamentally determinative of how you are going to feel about this film is whether you believe it was morally wrong to engage in the liquor business during Prohibition.

That's an intriguing way of putting it. Clearly, it is never absolutely wrong to engage in liquor, per se, even if the state says it is. But to engage in the liquor *business*... well, that depends on what the business entails. And the state, by making liquor illegal, guaranteed that the only people who *would* engage in the business would be criminals. The only way to *survive* in that business was, in fact, to *become* a criminal, with all the murder and whatnot that that entailed. So, I'd be inclined to say that it *was* morally wrong to engage in that business (though it would not have been morally wrong to make liquor for your own personal consumption).

"Criminals," according to natural law political philosophy, are not defined by the government or positive law. Blackstone didn't really regard violators of malum prohibitum to be criminals. If, in order to survive, you have to engage in self-defense (whether against gangsters or prohibition agents), that still doesn't really get you into trouble with Rutherford, Hooker, Locke, Montesquieu or Blackstone.

Interestingly enough, Lawless touches on these distinctions. It is clear that Forrest wants nothing to do with either the gangsters or the corrupt law enforcement. Jack, on the other hand, idolizes the gangsters (particularly Gary Oldman's character) and, left to himself, would probably become one of them (if he hasn't already). Part of the story here seems to be that Forrest sees this tendency in Jack, and that is why he tries to keep him out of it. As far as the violence goes, unlike the gangsters, the Bondurants are not interested in fighting any wars over territory. There is one specific scene where Forrest and Howard do act for revenge instead of defense, but it's uncharacteristic of them, and there's nothing about what they do in that one scene that was really necessary to protect their business. The problem with prohibiting something outside of the government's natural sphere, is that it gives law enforcement an especially naturally corrupting power. If you're going to stand up to that, it doesn't necessarily make you one of the bad guys.

I'm not saying it would be easy to work in a career that was against the law. When the only way for a business to exist is in the black market, that is just the sort of business that is going to attract the more unsavory elements of society - including habitual criminals who tend to have a lifestyle of disregarding the law in the first place. But that doesn't mean that, during Prohibition, there were not a very large number of Americans who engaged in producing and selling liquor with a clear conscience. And they were regular traditional citizens who did not have a habit of flouting the law otherwise.

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Barbara Nicolosi returns to film-review blogging with a condemnation of Lawless.

Even before we get to the moral problems of the spectacular violence in Lawless, its more inexcusable failing is that the movie comes down to just another sad example of tragic waste. Hollywood really, really, really ought to know better by now. The audience sure does. So, why can’t all the producers, directors and executives figure it out?
Edited by Overstreet

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I paid $10.50 to see this at my local theater. Had been thinking about the movie a lot since seeing it at an advance screening and wanted to evaluate it once more on the big screen. On second view, the weakness of Shia's character and performance bothered me less, and the film's strengths remained strong. I'm a pretty big fan of this one.

EDIT: Meant to add that I hadn't realized just how much there is in the film about Forrest being "indestructible" until I saw the film a second time. I don't know how that aspect flew under the radar for me the first time. It makes the humorous reaction to Forrest's, well, indestructibility a bit more understandable.

Edited by Christian

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The AV Club interviewed Nick Cave, and he talks at length about Lawless. I love how Cave references Sylvester and Tweety as if they were some rare cultural artifact.

Also, Christian, I finally saw the comments on your review of this. I'm glad a lot of folks stood up for you.

Edited by Jason Panella

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