Saturday, September 8, 2012

Reel To Reel: Lawless

White lightning and dark dealings.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain
Rated: R (borderline NC-17)
Red Flags: Intense, graphic bursts of violence, nudity and sensuality and strong language. This film is R for a reason, and it tests the limits of that rating.

In the Great Depression of the 1930's, only one business seems to thrive: bootlegging. And in the mountains of my beloved state of Virginia, moonshiners are cranking out product as fast as they can move it. Lawless focuses on Franklin County, Virginia in 1931, where the 'shine business rules. If you aren't making it, you're buying it, or you know somebody who does.

The Bondurant brothers are the biggest name in the trade, propped up by a legend of near-immortality. They've survived Spanish Flu and whatever else tries to take them out. Forrest (Hardy) runs the business side out of a gas station with a laconic, barely-coherent mumble and brass knuckles when necessary, which is often. Older brother Howard (Clarke) provides more muscle, and kid brother Jack (LaBeouf) is the lookout full of ideas who's begging to get in on more of the action.

Although the Bondurants pay off the local sheriff's deputies, they can't stop corrupt Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Pearce), who wants a cut for the Franklin County D.A. Rakes comes all the way from Chicago, and the obvious question is why a Virginia lawman would need to look that far, given the ruthlessness we see among Virginia's moonshining mountain men. Then we see our answer: it's impossible to find sharp-dressed, sadistic thugs in Virginia to do your bidding with hankerchiefs and white gloves. Fellow critic Roger Ebert describes Rakes as "foppish," a form of that word usually reserved for garishly-dressed 18th Century men, and I can't describe him any better than that.

Rakes doesn't seem to understand he's messing with the wrong people. Bullying the brothers just makes them tougher. Forrest survives a throat-slashing at the gas station's restaurant when two men harass Maggie (Chastain), a dancer from Chicago who's now working as a waitress after wanting to get away from big-city life.

Jack, frustrated with Forrest's lack of business development, takes a big risk and sets up a deal with gangsters to bring in more money. Combined with his ideas to improve the operation, the brothers haul in piles of cash. Jack seems to have most of it, and he spends it on fast cars and fancy clothes, looking like some misplaced mobster. He hopes he can woo the heart of Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), an Amish girl -- although the film never uses the word "Amish" -- under the tight leash of her father. The film gives us a rare look inside an Amish church service, and an even rarer look at what happens when a drunk man, Jack, stumbles into one.

The sacrilege is the tamest of the film's squirmy moments. You'll have to endure bloody fisticuffs, slashing, mutilations, hints of rape and gunfights peppered with salty language along with shock nudity. I won't blame you if you walk out. Really.

Lawless is dark, brutal and profane because of its source material. The film is based on the novel The Wettest County In The World by Matt Bondurant, who based it upon the moonshiner operations of his grandfather and great uncles in Virginia. Even though he's had his own experience with 'shine, he still ran into trouble obtaining the facts to bolster his fiction. Decades after prohibition, people are still reluctant to talk about the business. That has me wondering: is moonshining really just about illegal liquor, or as this movie suggests, all the corruption surrounding it?

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