Still untouchable

‘Lawless’ pays decent homage to DePalma’s Prohibition storytelling
by Willie Krischke
A good parallel to Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables” of more than 20  years ago, “Lawless” tells the story of the other side of Prohibition. Not of the gangsters who grew rich on bootlegged alcohol, or the law enforcement officers tasked with stopping them, but of the hillbilly moonshiners who brewed the stuff in the hills of Virginia and Kentucky. Turns out for every Elliott Ness there’s a Charlie Rake, and as for the gangsters, they’re on nobody’s side, killing cops, killing each other, and killing the moonshiners if it will get them a bigger piece of the pie.

But, as in “The Untouchables,” the characters in “Lawless” don’t quite feel real. They’re not exactly archetypal but feel closest to, if anything, the characters in dime store crime novels. Tom Hardy (who was most recently unrecognizable behind Bane’s mask in “The Dark Knight Rises”) plays Forrest Bondurant, the smartest and toughest of the Bondurant boys. They run a gas station/general store/roadhouse, but really, it’s just a front for their expansive bootlegging operation – they make the best apple brandy in three states. There’s a legend around Franklin County that the Bondurants are immortal, unkillable. And Forrest isn’t going to do anything to dispel that rumor, as it’s good for business. He knows the power of talking softly and carrying a big stick, or, alternately, a pair of brass knuckles. Hardy is a wonderful actor and working at the top of his game here – it’s fantastic just how much he can express with a grunt or a single word.
His older brother, Howard (Jason Clarke), isn’t all that interesting; he’s got all the toughness and brutality of Forrest, but not the brains. He seems content to do what he’s told. I was actually surprised there is no scene in “Lawless” where he breaks down crying like a baby; he’s that kind of guy. Forrest’s younger brother Jack, on the other hand, has a harder time finding his place. He lacks the “grit” of his two older brothers; when someone sticks a gun in his face, his heart pounds, his face sweats, and he goes all weak in the knees. Jack is played by Shia LeBouf, and at first that seemed like a casting mistake to me – LeBouf is the epitome of the modern action hero, all geeky nerves, clever lines and pretty boy good looks and doesn’t seem like he belongs in a period drama about hillbilly tough guys. But that’s just the point – he doesn’t belong here. He’s cut from entirely different cloth from his brothers and should probably be enrolled in university instead of running around the Ozarks in a beat-up truck.  But since that’s not really an option for him, and he’s determined not to be left sweeping floors, he tries to make up for what he lacks in strength with daring and cleverness. Sadly, he’s not as smart as he thinks he is and fails to grasp the brutal nature of the business the way his brother does. LeBouf is Fredo Corleone to Hardy’s Michael; he’s the one whose desperate attempts to prove himself keep making messes and getting people killed.
Guy Pearce (who will forever be, in my mind, be the guy from “Memento”) plays Charlie Rake, a sadistic, sissified special deputy, brought in not so much to shut down the myriad bootlegging operations as to make sure that the district attorney gets his cut. Rake is most definitely a Dapper Dan – from the looks of it, he goes through a bottle of hair grease a week and wears pristine leather gloves any time he beats the living hell out of a bootlegger. He seems exactly the kind of guy J. Edgar Hoover would’ve hired. Cinematically, he’s the polar opposite of Forrest Bondurant; where Forrest is gruff and quiet, Charlie loves to talk; where Bondurant is dressed in faded greys and browns that might get washed every few months, Charlie is impeccably wardrobed in pin-striped suits. But the two men are twins when it comes to toughness, violence and brutality. It’s fun to watch, as their worlds collide again and again.  

There are women in this movie, strictly speaking, but this is a man’s world and they don’t have much depth or involvement in the story. Jessica Chastain (who is in everything these days) plays a distraught woman attempting to escape her life as a burlesque dancer in Chicago. Hardy hires her as the waitress at the roadhouse, mostly because he’s never seen anyone like her and can’t figure out what to do with her. Before long, she moves into the Bondurant house (for her safety, ostensibly) and then into Forrest’s bed. Mia Wasikowska plays a preacher’s daughter, who LeBouf takes a fancy to, even though her father chases him away with an axe every time he tries to court her.  

There are moments when “Lawless” seems to want to be more than just a fun, violent, exciting gangster flick; the cinematography is more beautiful and lyrical than it needs to be for this kind of story. Director John Hillcoat is clearly a Brian De Palma fan, but I’m not sure he really captures the combination of violence, poetry and psychological depth that made De Palma one of the best and most interesting filmmakers of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
But to say Hillcoat is no De Palma is slight criticism; even De Palma’s not himself these days. And when you aim for the stars and don’t quite make it, often you end up somewhere sublime anyway. “Lawless” is an enjoyable film with some great performances and certainly better than most offerings at the theater this time of year.

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