Lawless is an articulate and powerful film that lives and breathes in the specificity of performance, burns bright in the living and dying of personal ambition and the collateral damages in its name. Driven by a talented cast, a masterful director and brilliant screenwriter, this is and isn’t just a gangster film, just as it isn’t burdened with the limitations of ‘based on a true story‘, and thankfully, quite purposefully it is artfully inspired. Mostly it is, simply put, a crafted cacophony of moment in time and place that goes beyond the experience of historical dramas and genre flicks, resonating, however fleetingly in the hours and days of our lives with the thrill that comes from movies made by and for adults. The joy of a good R rated film is that we can find something real to connect to, even against our inevitable differences, drawn from the truth of happening when all the movie constellations line up to form something special, something lasting that we can’t wait to find again, watch another time, share. I admit I imagined greatness from Lawless, the gold mine from the repeat union of John Hillcoat and Nick Cave that gave us the unique landscape outback of an Australian Western (The Proposition). Right away I knew this film would have appealed to Sergio Leone. Of course we lost Leone in 89′ and therefore can only speculate on what he might have to say, but certainly the demi-god of Westerns would enjoy Hillcoat’s fascination with the eternity of moments. Surely the lover and master of Mise-en-scène would celebrate the resounding crescendo formed from Hillcoat’s juxtaposition of extreme close-ups and far away shots snapped as if perched on the hand of god, broiled by Leone’s unforgiving sun. Leone, like Hillcoat are fond of the surety of performance, not the value of computer effect or how to best cover up deadpan performances with a series of shots. It is the language of Hillcoat’s obsessions and his direction of Nick Cave’s script that gives breath as breath is taken, the way smiles soften a harsh reality, give birth to shared darkness. Lawless seems to take us back in time or at least to another place less obscured with the big floppy hats of blockbuster films replaced with the dirty faced children of Prohibition-era Franklin County, Virginia gawking at guns and cars and beautiful men and women.
You can feel the world of this film without a lot of attention placed on it to constantly dazzle you. It exudes the warmth of a settling dusty road, the battered smile of a damaged woman, the smell of a hay-field collecting young love. This way the actors are allowed to disappear altogether, absorbed in a way and replaced with the personalities of the story. Lots of films rely on rigid archetypes that make such freedoms almost impossible where the bad guys have to be bad all the time, wear dark like capes and Fedoras without much room for acting. Hillcoat’s tutelage offers a balanced mix of executable actions and moments born in the moments. These characters are wrought from air and reflections, complexions colored from emotions found and made to burn up as the theater smolders in their every rung out glance and grimace. It doesn’t matter where we’re going, we just want to enjoy the ride and we do. The unencumbered plot is to a Hillcoat film as laden exposition is to a Christopher Nolan albatross, worlds of difference tempered in the moments. Whereby Inception explains the action, The Proposition frames it, nourishes it, the latter winning over the other even if popular opinion prefers the former for now. Perhaps we’ll see the difference more clearly later, after we come to our senses. Grand films consume all by overload, stifling the senses but destined to fade, leaving a hole where its bloated belly had been, the comic effect of ridiculous patterned from caricature that just doesn’t stick with us over time. What’s the difference between Bale’s Batman and George Clooney‘s? Nipples? The raspy voice? Internal films know no such flaws, the taxing done inside where our guts and bones share space, returning to remind us that believable feels real. It is why the most prestigious awards are given out to the films that most aptly capture our living fantasies. Sure, there are plenty of fodder trophies and manufactured accomplishments but like bowling mementos they collect the most dust and inevitably wear out their usefulness, destined for thrift shops where nobody knows the names on the plaques.
Lawless makes no apologies for being a character film. The fact that it has been criticized for not having a point, suggesting somehow that stuff has to happen in a certain grand way in order to qualify as a big screen story is ridiculous. The fact that Roger Ebert’s movie reviews have been declining in years suggests there is more to his missing the merits of this film than his mere abhorrence of the violence, revealing instead that he’s lost his objectivity due to cavities from so many PG13 movies he’s preferred. In light of his appreciation of The Proposition I won’t write him off entirely just yet. In the case of this film, plot serves characters individually and collectively in their relationships, crimes and misdemeanors. Plot moves chronologically forward but only insofar as we remain roughly in the vicinity of the story. No flash backs, no flash forwards or old men telling us about the adventures of their youth, etc. There is a certain bookend effect, such that we are told in a way to wrap things up things that happen down the road. But this is necessary closure, it is what is known as the denouement or “the final outcome of the main dramatic complication in a literary work”. Plot is what happens to tell story within the given time frame of your typical movie but more often than not a film relies almost entirely on the stuff happening, less about story and even less about characters. These ‘concept driven’ films are often blockbusters, comic book movies and fantasy films often fall into this concept, and by all rights it is clear that character films are just not in the same neighborhood and they are better because of it. Anthropomorphic cars, jeeps, planes and trains from another planet that team together to help save the planet, show them joining forces, fighting, winning, and saying goodbye until the next invasion force is what it is and Lawless doesn’t even want to be that. Stuff happens in order to arrive at the inevitable conclusion, planet Earth saved another day, but what is the story and who are the characters? Lawless establishes time, place and relationships first, than plot moves us forward but never independently, never solely for effect. Most people aren’t going to mistakenly sit down to watch this film and mix it up with Transformers so complaining that Lawless isn’t more like giant walking and fighting cars is a little silly.
Lawless focuses on the lives of the Bondurant brothers, Jack, Forrest and Howard who were moonshiners and outlaws who became heroes when the law became criminals back during Prohibition. The brothers were locked together and their destiny interwoven. A story about one of them could only fully be told by including all of them. The main character is Jack, growing up the little brother in the shadow of his brothers, already larger than life and steeped in mystery, struggling to scratch out from under so much reputation and lore. He just wants to live but he cannot, all hope for a little more youth burned up in the fire of wicked men, lawlessness and ambition. If we are to believe criminals can be heroes and the meek can do right by desire to be better alone, then Lawless goes beyond portraiture, never succumbing to the ills of caricature, tapping into our own personal and collective histories. If the film suffers at all it is that is succeeds so well at creating the world of the story that we hate to see it end, desperate to hold on a little longer, draw in a little more reckless abandon.
It is true, the film plods at time, caught up in capturing moments too long, allowing us a way into the history of Americana at the expense of larger than life Hollywood grandeur. There are no bustling green screen city scapes, no wild action porn or bare knuckle car chases beyond what could have happened and probably did. The tires on the cars in the movie never completely break possible, always held together with the glue of probable. Gun battles rage but people are not immune to the red-red blood of death and dying. We are spared the atrociousness of a PG13 rating, the horrors of dumb, dumber and dumberer storytelling. The scenes are propelled forward by dirty hands and sweat stained faces, bloody holes and voracious appetites. Hillcoat does not spend much time in the bedroom or belabor torture, the ghastly is held in candle light and impromptu calamity, extreme violence that is considerably more effective held back a little, given the chance for us to make much more out of it in our own experiences. The film moves by character actions, not the action of characters and this is challenging to many who would prefer it the other way in order to justify long drawn out scenes like vans held in the seconds flying off a bridge or the same 8 minutes of airplane crash rewound and played back over and over and over again. Hillcoat prefers the internal happenings of men and women to their counterparts, the events of history as portrayed by stuff taking place, bridges erected only to burn them down, prisons with the purpose of place instead of a place for character, a place holder for genuineness, blossoming togetherness torn apart by the greed, ambition and evil.
Lovingly photographed and artfully designed, Lawless takes great pains to get the setting right, to compose shots that give life to shadows and frames to ordinary countrysides, small towns and family homes. Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme (The Merchant of Venice, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Proposition) is certain to give Hillcoat the canvas for his imagining, to always keep the camera out of the business of the story, enhancing what is there not the way we see it – like avoiding shaking the camera for effect, moving the camera in ways that break all reality, manufacture performance. It is a rare treat to be invited into a movie for a change, given the opportunity to settle in time and place, allowed to engage and be engaged. Lawless is not revolutionary by design, it does not invent new techniques or tell a story we have not heard in one way or another before. It does not pretend to be something beyond the story and characters portrayed, it does not answer questions or write history any more than right the wrongs of perception, prejudice or expectations. What it does well, where it exceeds the limitations of so many films that set out to tell a story with characters we can relate to, is that it captures so effortlessly the mood and sentiment of an era where the law and criminals were sometimes on opposite sides of the people, a time when what is right and what is wrong cannot be manufactured or broken or upheld because it should be but rather because our actions make them so and they are right in the living of them. Historical dramas about actual people are challenging insofar as there are certain guidelines that must not be broken, just as there are certain matters of fact that have to be part of the telling of the tale. In the case of actual persons who lived a certain way and died in the living of those ways, it is hard to imagine a better cast of actors living so fully and with such certainty of performance that we are reminded of the power of the cinema to explore, to confirm and to unsettle all our preconceived ideas and feelings in order to enjoy ordinary, aspire for more and live our own joys of misdemeanors and accomplishments.
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