Arts and Culture

'Lawless'

Watch this story of corn liquor bootleggers to get a leg up on corn.

By Steve Burgess 31 Aug 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture every other weekend for The Tyee.

Lawless, the John Hillcoat film about a family of Virginia bootleggers, arrives with the billing: "Based on a true story." If movies were consumer products we could probably sue. Lawless is a true story like Bugs Bunny cartoons are nature documentaries. This much is true, though: Until now nobody has really tried to do a straight, vicious film version of The Dukes of Hazzard. There's probably a market for it.

Lawless is based on the The Wettest County in the World, a novel by Matt Bondurant loosely based on the activities of his real-life bootlegging relatives. As historical veracity goes, we are getting close to homeopathic levels here. Few will care, of course. It just seems particularly egregious in a movie as cartoonish as this one -- like advertising 7-UP as "Made with real corn."

Plenty of corn in Lawless, onscreen and in Mason jars. The film centres on the Bondurants -- Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and young Jack (Shia LaBeouf). They are simple country folk in Virginia's Franklin County, making a simple living as bootleggers and dishing out honest, bloody beatings to those deserving. Dane DeHaan plays Jack's pal Cricket, the genial crippled boy. "He wouldn't hurt a fly," Jack exclaims. Might as well put a red Star Trek ensign's uniform on that boy. He's doomed.

Enter Fudd

One by one caricatures -- sorry, characters -- appear in town, often for no discernible reason. Jessica Chastain shows up as the Purty City Gal, just because. Gary Oldman arrives in a pin-striped suit and shoots up the town with a sub-machine gun. Why? He's a gangster. It's what they do. Next, Harold Prince hits town and puts on a big song-and-dance musical because... but that scene was apparently cut.

All this is just a warm-up for the debut of Elmer Fudd. Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is a Chicago cop -- "Special deputy," he insists -- with white gloves, slicked-back hair, and a sneer lopsided enough to make his face list. As played by Pearce and written by screenwriter Nick Cave (yes, that "Bad Seeds" Nick Cave), Rakes is quite a creation -- a villain for those who found the Chucky doll too subtle. Rakes struts about like Mussolini, dripping supercilious contempt over the local hillbillies between episodes of sadistic violence. The screenplay also drops hints of repressed homosexuality, making Rakes a throwback to the cinematic era of twisted, preening, sexually ambiguous creeps of the Emperor Nero type.

Lawless offers up the simplest of constructions -- a mounting series of outrages committed against our heroes in anticipation of the sweet and brutal revenge that will follow. Subtle as a bowling alley, it revels in scenes of castration, throat-slashing, and blood-bubbling beatings. And yes, poor Cricket will be sacrificed. It's not really a spoiler if you've seen more than three movies in your life. Characters like Cricket exist purely as cannon fodder, to let the heroes get mean -- plumb, mad-dog mean!

We're not in Badlands anymore, Toto

Watching movies like Lawless, it can be easy to forget what movies are capable of. A distant echo sounds courtesy of Mia Wasikowska, who plays Bertha, love interest of Shia LaBeouf. Wasikowska might remind you of a young Sissy Spacek, which might remind you of Terence Malick's Badlands, a movie that exists on an infinitely more elevated plane. In Badlands Spacek's narration provides the appalling, darkly humorous perspective of a teenage girl for whom a boyfriend's homicidal rampage is viewed as merely the romantic journey of star-crossed lovers. Lawless presents a similar love story as though written by the same besotted teenage girl.

Last year an Emmy-winning documentary, The Last One, introduced viewers to Appalachian moonshiner Popcorn Sutton. The film was a gentle, fascinating look at the much-heralded tradition of the mountain still as well as the men who build them. It's worth looking up. Or if you prefer you can probably find Dukes of Hazzard reruns on the dial somewhere. Bugs Bunny, too. Failing that, I guess there's Lawless. But I'd keep looking.  [Tyee]

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