The new movie “Lawless” warns viewers from the top that it is “Based on a true story.” When I saw that on-screen notice, I knew I should back down the gangway and wander into one of the twelve-plex’s other auditoriums. Beats me if documentaries are always bad films (though I do admit to both avoiding and, generally, despising them). But narrative films that try to recall events from real life are almost always impossible to believe, poorly organized, and dull.
At least “Lawless” is fun to look at. Australian Director John Hillcoat has made Depression-era rural Virginia look green and lush, full of trees and swamps. The costumes are a kick, too. Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce, two terrific actors, play bootlegger gunmen and wear outfits gaudy enough to be right for D.C. area procurers. Those outfits are fun.
But what else is there to say in the movie’s favor? While one might give a pass to a minor character played by Mia Wasikowka, a teenager belonging to a car-owning but beard-wearing sect of chanting, feet-washing Mennonites. She doesn’t do anything worse than mislead her father. The rest of the characters are all pretty bad people.
The anti-heroes are the brothers Bondurant, three guys who make and deliver moonshine whiskey while living in their own isolated cafe and filling station. The inevitable voice-over narration (filmmakers find it hard to tell a story with action and must have details summarized for the viewers) tells us that the oldest of the siblings, Forrest, has a reputation for being invulnerable.
You see, he survived the First World War. And the Spanish Influenza epidemic that followed. This didn’t seem much reason for anyone to think Forrest (Tom Hardy) special. But then he has his throat slit and survives that.
I’m sure this story is true. But it is very, very hard to accept. The brothers refuse to make an accommodation with a protection organization introduced by Special Deputy Rakes (Pearce). Rakes sends a couple of guys out to the station to wrangle with Forrest.
Once they’ve slit his throat (and maybe raped his girl—the movie isn’t clear about this), they leave him to die. He closes up his own throat and passes out. Maggie (Jessica Chastain) then drives him to the hospital where he is sewn up and, in a day or two, he’s as good as new.
True? Maybe. Does it seem plausible as it is told in the movie? No way.
Really almost none of the story seems to follow reasonably. If Rakes is only working on the one county and has co-opted all the other still operators, why doesn’t he just walk up to Forrest and shoot him. Or arrest him. I was reminded of the Koresh “compound” siege the ATF pulled in Waco. Why didn’t they simply wait until their person of interest came into town to use the post office and then grab him?
Pearce, with his center part apparently shaved, and Oldman, his body recoiling when his Thompson machine gun goes off, are kind of fun to watch, as are Chastain (playing a hoochie coo dancer from Chicago, now hiding out) and Wasikowska. Most of the rest of the characters are either inexpressive or one-noters. Shia LaBeouf, who may have been cast to make Jack Bondurant likable, gives us the same character he always plays, the young light-weight associated with the real power, whether that is Indiana Jones or some giant robot.
“Lawless” has to creep along through a minefield of cryptic remarks (what “blood feud”?) and under a haze of mediocre “roots” music which, like the film’s story, would probably be excused by the director as being “based on true facts.”
Enough of this reality stuff. I get enough reality every day. When I go to the movies, I want something better organized and more likely. Something entertaining.