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Lawless (A Movie Review)




Once upon a time the good guys and bad guys were a very black and white distinction.  You knew that the law was good and the criminals were bad.  It was rather comforting.

Of course, it was also rather boring.  Particularly on a very murky subject like prohibition.  Very few people in the world would argue that the 1920s laws outlawing liquor were rather misguided in even the best of circumstances.  No one really wants to return to those days.  That is why to this day the time period is so fascinating.  People were being forced to break the law in order to so something that is now quite normal to daily life.

That said, whether you agree with the law or not – it was the law of the land.  Bootleggers were criminals.  Again, it is worthy of an argument on whether selling alcohol is wrong, just like today the same arguments can be made for marijuana.  But in breaking the law, even if that seems benign by modern standards, these men were likely to commit other crimes which were not so innocent. 

There is a reason why organized crime became so big specifically during prohibition.  Deny the people something they want and they will pay a premium for it.  That will bring about a bunch of toughs who see an easy buck in skirting or breaking the law.  To paraphrase a less convincing argument for firearms, if you outlaw something, only outlaws will have it.

Bootleggers have lately become romanticized a bit in pop culture, particularly in the popular HBO series Boardwalk Empire and now this film.

Even more so than Boardwalk, in Lawless the police are evil, corrupt, violent little dictators and the alcohol providers are basically well-meaning entrepreneurs providing a service who are only violent when forced to protect themselves.

It’s a slightly white-washed look at American history.  But it is a gripping one.

Lawless is the second collaboration between director John Hillcoat and the film’s screenwriter, musician Nick Cave of the Bad Seeds fame.  They had worked together in 2006 on the Australian western The Proposition, which starred Guy Pearce, who returns here as well and takes on the over-the-top role of the corrupt lawman determined to destroy the moonshining Bondurant family in the old South.  (The movie is based on a true story.)

The three brothers are Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy of The Dark Knight Rises), the tough-but-silent brains behind the operations, Howard Bondurant (Jason Clarke of Public Enemies) and the young, weaker brother Jack Bondurant (Shia Laboeuf of Transformers).  Local legend has it that the brothers are immortal.  The law is out to prove that legend wrong.

The brothers start a surprisingly thriving industry creating quality product in a time when the good stuff is not easy to find, even on the black market.  The brothers try to build their business, avoid the law and organized crime and even have time for a couple of unlikely romances with a former waitress (Jessica Chastain) and a preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska). 

Cave’s screenplay is much better than this film could have been, giving Lawless a gritty immediacy.  

Alex Diamond

Copyright ©2012 All rights reserved. Posted: November 27, 2012.

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