Friday, August 17, 2012
While I obviously couldn't be in Chicago for the Music Box's 70mm screening of The Master, at least I got to see the new John Hillcoat movie, Lawless, which was a lot harder to like than I'd hoped. The problems aren't readily apparent. To find them one has to look at it in both the context of Hillcoat's previous films, as well as the compendium of Americana classics this one seems to want to join the ranks of. Hillcoat's first picture, The Proposition, was a savage Western that Roger Ebert aptly compared to Blood Meridian. His next movie was actually an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel, The Road, and the result was near-perfection, bleak beauty at its finest. So with Hillcoat behind Matt Bondurant's book The Wettest County in the World, which tells the story of the prohibition-era moonshine smuggling racket of the Bondurant brothers, I was naturally intrigued. Yet it turns out Hillcoat's up to very little in the movie. He's got some really nice locations that he frames nicely, yet there were only a few sequences of actually inspired filmmaking. One critic pointed out that Hillcoat doesn't so much direct the film as he art directs it. But the real issue at hand with Lawless is the screenplay by Nick Cave (who also wrote The Proposition), who, from what I've heard, strays far from the source material and creates what's essentially a lifeless piece of ultra-violent pulp. He doesn't really explore any of his characters, and the one who gets the most attention, the youngest Bondurant, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), is the generic, excited, naive young brother found so often in fiction. LaBeouf makes Jack likable, but there's no depth of character or even compelling dialogue to elevate him above caricature. And with a film like this one doesn't need three dimensional characters as long as they at least have something interesting to say. Oh, well, maybe the Bondurant boys weren't the smartest brothers in the world. The rest of the male cast, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Guy Pierce, and Gary Oldman are given little to do but speak in gruff tones and beat people up. That brings me to one of the biggest problems with the movie, which would be Guy Pierce, who plays the sadistic villain who's as ruthless as he is boring. Hillcoat and Cave clearly want Pierce to bring a sense of fear and intensity to his scenes, but for the most part he's just ripping off other movie villains. If people like this film it will be because it's daring in its violent intensity. But Hillcoat and Cave already did that in The Proposition. The whole thing was just too amateurish with dull characters and hardly an ounce of intelligence. But there was one scene I absolutely loved: Tom Hardy's love interest, Jessica Chastain, leaves for her hotel, just as two thugs attack Hardy and slice his throat (don't worry, one of the dark running jokes in the film is Hardy's character's immortality). As Chastain is driving away, it begins to snow, and she realizes she's waited long enough to tell him that she cares about him, and turns her car around.