The only John Hillcoat film I had seen before today is The Road – lots of drama within a constrained narrative and superb production design – and fortunately Lawless is not stultifyingly bleak and depressing because I left The Road feeling like I had a cinderblock on my chest.
On the other hand, I left Lawless feeling nostalgic for stories and images from my childhood and feeling appreciation for a well-crafted film in the traditional style built on good production values, a well-developed story, and actors who seem larger than life.
Sometimes an old-fashioned story with plenty of action and romance is just the ticket for a Sunday matinee.
Based on the book The Wettest County in the World written by Matt Bondurant about his bootlegging relatives in Franklin County, Virginia during Prohibition, Lawless follows three brothers who become entangled with a new lawman from Chicago, a sadistic weirdo who wants to take a cut of their operation.
Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and Jason Clarke play the Bondurant brothers, Jack, Forrest, and Howard, with skill, but it is Jack and Forrest’s respective love interests who are even more evocative for me as the film unfolds.
Mia Wasikowski (love her recent performances in Albert Knobbs, Jane Eyre, and The Kids are All Right) plays Bertha Minnix, a young girl cloistered by her religious father but whose adventurous streak is evident to young Jack.
Jessica Chastain (love her in everything from The Tree of Life and The Help to Take Shelter and The Debt) is an astonishingly good actor and one of the most beautiful women to grace the screen. She is mesmerizing in every scene even those in which she is a marginal figure.
What are my problems with the film? The music is occasionally too intrusive, and the narration that concludes the film is a bit too much (and too long).
What is most appealing to me about the movie beyond its solid craftsmanship and gentle love stories (surprising when set against some quite violent scenes and sequences)?
Some of the images are treasures – images that will stay with me for awhile.
Franklin County, Virginia skirts the Appalachian Mountains sort of like Cleveland County, North Carolina where (as we say) my people are from. The foothills leading up to the mountains have a rolling beauty that can be rugged yet gentle at the same time.
It occurs to me now that the landscape provides a sort of a parallel to the competing tones of violence and romance in the story mentioned above.
During childhood visits to the farms where my parents grew up on either side of Shelby, I heard stories about the local bootleggers along with other shocking tales. I suspect the adults would share these stories when they thought I was reading and not paying attention or when I was quiet enough at play or shelling peas or shucking corn or whatever the task of the moment was not to interrupt the flow of their conversation.
My family was comprised mostly of “church people,” but those stories and others about various forms of bad behavior were thrilling to me during the day just as the familiar (and tamer) ones I heard about our family in “the good old days” were comforting at bedtime.
When I saw the landscapes of Lawless, I thought of Cleveland County as winter turns to spring with soft sunlight, rolling hills, a tangle of leafless kudzu vines in bold brown shapes, scattered ramshackle buildings in need of a coat of paint, and twisting dirt roads that seem familiar even when they are not.
So many of those sites have disappeared from the countryside I once knew so well, but they are still located inside my head and were released as a series of vivid recollections when I saw the locations chosen and lovingly captured in Lawless.
Seeing this film today made me want to watch Get Low again.
Lawless I like; Get Low I love.