Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 30, 2012 5:49 pm 
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Hard knocks in the backwoods

Jessica Chastain, a striking redhead, fits well in movies of stark settings and strong inexpressible emotion, can we say? She burst on the scene last year, and was particularly memorable in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. In John Hillcoat's Lawless she is Maggie Beauford, an exotic dancer who comes to Virginia bootlegger country from Chicago in 1931 in search of a quiet life. She makes a big mistake going to work for Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy, "Bane" in The Dark Knight Rises), a bull-necked, inarticulate backwoods criminal with a saloon, store, gas station and most importantly for their ambition, a lucrative still. She has landed in the middle of a war of outlaws and outlaw cops at the height of Prohibition. There's another woman in this whirlwind of macho violence -- a visually lovely film that makes a strong initial impression but leaves a pale memory. She is Bertha Minnix, a preacher's daughter, played by another particularly pale and striking-looking actress, Mia Wasikowska.

Forest's dumb, innocent little brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is after Bertha. Bertha's bearded father runs a strict cult, and she seems an unlikely girlfriend indeed for the eager, materialistic Jack, who thinks a fast, expensive Ford and a pretty new dress will change her whole way of looking at life. The people here are not very interesting, except for the pain they can cause each other, and our eyes tend to dwell a lot on the beautiful old cars, the cigars, the hats, the shotguns and the stills.

Hillcoat has assembled an excellent cast that has Guy Pearce and Gary Oldman as the chief villailns. As Charlie Rakes, from Chicago like Maggie and bringing the ugliness she sought to escape, Pearce plays one of his most unpleasant characters. When Jack and his little bandylegged sidekick Cricket (the memorable Dane DeHaan) are together or Jack is joyriding with Bertha, there's an unmistakable and not unwelcome Bonnie and Clyde feeling in the air, but as Anthony Lane says in his New Yorker review, Lawless "feels chock-full of entrances that never quite lead anywhere." We get glimpses but no great moments, just flashes of violence with not much in between, or alternations of "tedium and spasm," as Lane puts it. Jack and Bertha don't get very far. It all ends in a shootout that allows the Bondurant boys to show their famous invincibility but is not otherwise particularly memorable or unique. In one of their rushed trysts Bertha has told Jack he's been called that, "invincible," and he says "I don't know what that word means, but I like the sound of it." Jack's hunger for Bertha and for recognition and success give the film its only breath of life.

The director being Australian, I was reminded of his fellow countryman David Michôd's terrific 2009 debut Animal Kingdom, which recounts the extremely violent life of an urban gangster family, but this doesn't measure up to that comparison. Again I am impressed by Hillcoat but left hanging. There is nothing like the freshness and intensity of Michôd's characters or the mysterious grip of his situations. "Disturbing, yet shallow," was what I called Hillcoat's 2005 outlaw family story The Proposition, also period and featuring Guy Pearce but set in the Australian outback. That sensation comes again here, in a more numbingly violent, but muted way.

Charlie Rakes, who vies uneasily with Jack for the viewer's attention, is a sadistic dandy who administers a brutal beating to Jack early on that is hard to watch. And it's not going to be the last. Later for revenge Rakes kills a helpless person with his bare hands. Forrest is a sort of Paul Bunyan, indestructible but brutish. Neither he nor Jack is at all articulate or interesting. LaBeouf, that pint-sized everyman of the Transformers series, never noted for subtlety, has his most human role here: his naive ambition and desire for the preacher's daughter is briefly touching. A new wrinkle, an ending less cleanly satisfying than Arthur Penn's rain of bullets, is that after a prolonged gun battle with a brutal aftermath, the movie skips to a happily-ever-after-we-married-and-had-lots-of-kids finale for two main characters, once Prohibition is over and the family turns (mostly) legit.

However ultimately unsatisfying, this comes in a handsome package. Again Hillcoat collaborates with screenwriter-composer Nick Cave, who coauthored the script and did the music, and the song interludes Cave designs have a lot of class, one of the memorable moments being an effectively anachronistic cover of Lou Reed's "White Light, White Heat" by bluegrass singer Ralph Stanley. This isn't as dramatic a film as The Proposition nor has it the power to haunt of Hillcoat's brave 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's almost unfilmable The Road. What excels this time is the gorgeous cinematography, palely, yet richly, tinted, of Benoît Delhomme, which gives a glow to the ladies' alabaster skin and a luster to the period automobiles, which for a change are not all shiny and black this time. Delhomme does wonders with misty hills and woods and hollows too, and helps breathe life into the character of Jack by capturing what Lane aptly calls "the sheen of desperation" on his face.

Lawless was adapted from the 2008 novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, grandson of one of the protagonists, who focuses like the movie on Jack, while recounting the period known as the Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy. The film debuted in competition at Cannes 2012, with releases in the US August 29, the UK Sept. 7, and France September 12, 2012.

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