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Moonshine and Mumbling


It must have seemed to director John Hillcoat that Matt Bondurant’s book, The Wettest County in the World, offered promising material for a movie when he purchased the film rights two years ago. Bondurant is the grandson and grandnephew of a once-notorious trio of brothers who ran an extensive bootlegging operation during the early 1930s in Franklin County, Virginia, amid the hills and hollows south of Roanoke. The three Bondurants got embroiled in a very nasty disagreement with a corrupt state official who sought to take control of the bootlegging proceeds. Matt Bondurant wrote a well-received fictionalized treatment of his forbears’ story, and Hillcoat may well have been drawn by the opportunity to deal with little-used subject matter, by the opportunity for a pungent melodramatic piece of Americana.

If that opportunity was there, Lawless sure didn’t successfully exploit it. It’s a slow-moving, too frequently torpid, and obscure movie punctuated with irruptions of violence and sadism. Aesthetically and narratively, the movie’s something of a mess.

Lawless provides a brief opening and closing voiceover, in the current fashion, by young Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf), the youngest of the Bondurant brothers, “the runt” as someone says maliciously. He relates how the family’s head, Forrest (Tom Hardy), is believed by some locals to be immortal, or at least very hard to kill. The Bondurants have a nicely profitable moonshine enterprise, and nicely cozy relationship with county law enforcement, until big-city trouble, in the person of a Chicago-based enforcer (Guy Pearce), appears, sent by the Commonwealth attorney, who wants to organize the area bootleggers for his benefit. Pearce’s operative is icily arrogant, brutally efficient, and at least slightly unhinged.

Of course the Bondurants, led by Forrest, won’t kowtow or pay tribute. The sides are drawn, but Lawless takes its time, and ours, depicting this, and getting to its bloody climax, after even more violent digressions. Along the way, Jessica Chastain shows up as a slightly soiled refugee, also from Chicago, looking for a job at the Bondurants’ country café, and young Jack sets his cap for a spirited daughter of a severe Mennonite patriarch (Mia Wasikowska), who can only meet Jack on the sly. This is actually the most interesting and best directed of the movie’s sidetrips, but it’s lost in Lawless’s clumsily sporadic plotting.

Its cast includes two “graduates” of Christopher Nolan’s recent Dark Knight Rising, Hardy and Gary Oldman. Oldman appears intermittently in a bracingly colorful and persuasive performance as Floyd Bannon, a Chicago gangster, but it’s not obvious if he’s only an inadequately explained plot device or someone whose part was edited down. It’s never quite clear what he’s doing in Franklin County. Hardy’s acting, on the other hand, is so mannered, it amounts to backwoods mumblecore. In one scene, when Chastain’s character at last offers herself to Forrest, Hardy’s growled, mumbled response is virtually unintelligible. The actors’ twangy, drawled deliveries are hard enough to make out without Hardy sounding as if he was still wearing his mask from Dark Knight. Lawless offers one of the most oddly ineffective sound post-synchronizations in memory.

It contains elements vaguely reminiscent of both the mid-1950s Robert Mitchum vehicle, Thunder Road, and 1970’s adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, The Moonshine Wars. Screenwriter-musician Nick Cave has said he wasn’t interested in the novel’s setting or historical basis when he set about adapting it, but that he was titillated by “the sentiment and excessive violence.” The last part certainly shows. What isn’t in evidence is a real indication he knows how to construct a dramatically involving and coherent movie.

Watch the trailer for Lawless

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