Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Lawless (and a bit about Robot and Frank)

             Head fer the Hills, Pa.  The Revinooers Is A-Comin’!
                                                   Review by Ken Burke
A true story of Depression-era moonshiners who don’t see kickback to the feds as a business plan, this is a violent but impressive tale of backwoods capitalism.

            While I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the book that inspired John Hillcoat’s Lawless (Matt Bondurant’s 2008 historical novel about his grandfather and great-uncles, The Wettest County in the World) nor the fidelity of the cinematic adaptation to its literary source, the basic facts are true:  during the grim 1930s years of the Great Depression, when people needed a drink more than ever to ease their financial sorrows, the production and sale of alcohol was forbidden by the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, so human need and entrepreneurial spirit linked up and illegal distilleries appeared wherever they could operate undetected, apparently nowhere more actively than in Franklin County, Virginia, where the Bondurant brothers for a time ran the most successful operation of all, backed by the Chicago mob even while harassed by the less-than-successful local law.  How this truth evolves into creative nonfiction or even further into full-blown docudrama is for the historians among you to explore, but whatever the full facts may be in this case the story on screen is quite compelling, if for no other reason than the seeming invincibility of elder sibling Forrest (Tom Hardy, famed as the mask-wearing maniacal villain Bane in this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises [Christopher Nolan]—within the photo, he’s on your left in the car), who seems to have absorbed more bullets than Vito Corleone in the original Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) and lived to tell about it, as did his brothers, the more-brawn-than-brains Howard (Jason Clarke—standing behind the car), and the youngest-but-emerging-power-in-the-family Jack (Shia LaBeof)—although it takes some effort to find out which brother was Matt’s grandfather because he seemingly resists filling in that detail, including in an extended review at where he finally acknowledges at the very end that it’s Jack.  Maybe it’s because for most of the film Forrest is the commanding, powerful one (just as “Madge is the pretty one!” as voiced by disgusted younger sister Millie in Joshua Logan’s 1955 Picnic), a guy as determined as Bane to accomplish what he believes in, although here it’s not the destruction of Batman and Gotham City but the preservation of the Bondurant family business without paying protection money, not to upscale mobsters (they’re actually his best customers) but to the law-enforcement leader, Charlie Rakes (a vicious Guy Pearce), sent in from the big city to clean out the moonshiners but who instead wants to clean up personally by forcing them to share their profits with him or else he'll do more than just arrest them.

            In addition to the Godfather references noted above (which could be extended with note of Jack’s rise in command of the family business during a period of recuperation for Forrest after he gets his throat slit by bullies working for Rakes), there’s a clear Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) vibe going here as well with the locals supporting the rugged-capitalist success of the Bondurants’ impressive array of big-volume stills and a sense of utter contempt by just about everyone (including the local law up in the county’s mountain community) toward swaggering, ruthless Special Agent Rakes who gives Jack a bloody beating early in the film (shades of Michael Corleone being beaten up—but not nearly so badly—by corrupt cop Capt. McClusky In that mafia classic I keep mentioning) as he attempts, unsuccessfully, to bring the Bondurant operation under his control.  Rakes finally finds a way to break the Bondurants’ secrecy about their mega-still location hidden deep in the woods when he trails love-struck Jack heading for a romp in the trees with his emerging girlfriend Bertha Minnix (an effectively subdued but still flirtatious Mia Wasikowska).  Jack and one-man army Howard get the drop on Rakes but when his reinforcements arrive they have to abandon both their lucrative livelihood and their co-conspirator, Cricket Pate (Dane DeHann), to the ruthless retaliation of Rakes, who leaves the stills in a shambles (after the cops have posed with the evidence before the destruction, just as Jack and Cricket posed for their own photos earlier when they were riding high with profits—again echoes of the self-promotion of the Barrow gang with mortified, captured Texas Ranger Frank Hamer in another famous photo—and just to run the table with references to these previous crime classics, don’t forget that Buck Barrow’s wife, Blanche, was also the daughter of a preacher, although Bertha never did anything illegal [immoral, in her father’s opinion, is another story if she and Jack hadn’t been so rudely interrupted]) and Cricket dead of a broken neck.  Rakes finally comes to his own rude end when a wounded piston-packing Jack and a vicious knife-wielding Howard finally put him down after he’s abandoned by his own troops in a rejection of police authority deteriorating into a police state.

            Essentially, that’s all there is from a narrative standpoint with Lawless, its just the hard-scrabble moonshiners outlasting the law (few of whom really are that interested in putting the Bondurants or any of their neighbors in jail for producing and providing the illegal substance de jour) and providing inspiration to their downtrodden community that survival, even success, could still be possible even in the hardest times, as well as inspiration that determination and self-respect—embodied in Forrest, emerging (when his ego doesn’t get the best of him) in Jack—will carry you for quite a distance even against rough odds and weave a web of support in your environment that can help bring neighbors together when callous adversity tries to impose itself (of course, in our current Great Recessionary times a film like this also conjures up the simple pleasure of “sticking it to the Man,” as Bonnie and Clyde did in the equally-tumultuous late ‘60s where the success of Great Depression criminals was also used as a metaphor for celebrating those who strike back at abusive authority, whether it’s used by politicians, police, or the financial Establishment who supports them both—you know, if I keep up in this vein much longer I’m going to end up an honorary member of the Black Panthers even though I’m white and affluent enough to be mistaken for someone who found anything remotely funny or useful about Clint Eastwood’s anti-Obama performance at the recent GOP convention).  So, while her character, Maggie Beauford, isn’t a critical piece of the plot—except for providing a love interest for life-hardened Forrest and driving him to the hospital when he was unconscious after the throat-slitting, rather than his own self-assumed, self-generated myth that he walked there himself in a superhuman show of invincibility—Jessica Chastain once again offers a marvelous presence in her role of a disillusioned city gal who wanders out to the Bondurants’ gas station/café/marginally-clandestine bar looking for a job and a new lease on life.  What she finds the night of the attack on Forrest is just as gruesome for her (those same thugs weren’t finished making mayhem just because her protector was incapacitated), but the restraint she shows later in insisting that nothing happened (which we’re not about to believe, even though Hillcoat spares us anything explicit, unlike what he shows of the men assaulting each other) is truly the mark of a great actress, whose notable roles are piling up like so much gold in her vault of accomplishments.  I’ll also note that while he doesn’t get much screen time Gary Oldman as major mobster Floyd Banner is also a delight to watch, although he’s smart enough to stay out of Agent Rakes’ way so as not risk tilting the unsteady balance between gangsters and feds in the early ‘30s (despite our secret hope that he might lend some needed firepower to the Bondurants’ cause, at least until they show at the climax that they have all they need; in a pinch, Forrest could probably have pulled some bullets out of his own body to shoot back with, as his assumed invulnerability continued to serve him well until he finally died of pneumonia at the anti-climax in the 1940s after all of the brothers had married their lady loves—including Bertha who finally stood up to her father just as Jack stood up to Rakes).

            Lawless is an intense experience that offers no qualms about siding with the criminals, except to raise the question of whether their circumstances don’t easily justify their crimes, especially in a situation where law enforcement seems driven more by personal ego and greed than by any sense of respect for the statutes to be upheld.  Forrest Bondurant may seem like a bit of an ego-driven fictional creation as well, but given that the real guy seemingly survived World War I and the Spanish Flu, in addition to being raised in the traditions of Southern pride (where backwoods honor may be the most intense motivation of all), the film evolves into a very interesting tale of survival as a response to potential destitution and an examination of what truly motivates dignity and honor.  If you don’t care for spurting blood you may have to ask for some of your ticket money back for the time you spent with your eyes closed, but whatever you end up paying for Lawless it would likely be money well spent unless you feel that the basic concept is just too easily established and takes longer than necessary to work itself out, a fault you could also apply to a lot of what inhabits movie theatres these days, including the charming but a bit over-stretched Robot and Frank.

            While I’m not offering a full review of Jake Schreier’s mostly comic meditation on aging, Robot and Frank, starring Frank Langella in a marvelous depiction of a character also named Frank—an elderly, fading-into-dementia cat burglar—and Peter Sarsgaard as the voice of the robot inserted into Frank’s life by his distant-but-somewhat-caring son, Hunter (James Marsden), I will recommend it for the consistent strength of Langella’s performance; the intelligent decision to imply rather than detail how Frank’s past criminal activities led to divorce, estrangement from Hunter, and a fierce sense of over-protectiveness from daughter Madison (Liv Tyler); and the warm addition of Susan Sarandon, providing additional comfort as Jennifer, a local librarian in their upstate rural NY location, a place in this near-future setting where service robots are an accepted aspect of society (not by Frank, until he realizes that his mechanical “friend” can help him get back into well-planned heists) and books are being stored away so that Jennifer’s library can transform into a Starbucks-like data-storage center.  I’d give this a 3 ½ star rating, about the same as Metacritic’s 67 and Movie Intelligence’s 72, although the folks at Rotten Tomatoes liked it even more with a high-for-them 88.  There’s a touching plot twist at the end, some well-written explorations about the sad, subtle ravages of increasing memory loss, and some interesting situations about the inevitable interactions between humans and intelligent machines soon to come in our society, although the whole experience—while a pleasure to watch—feels a bit strung out past what is already a limited 89 min. running time, as if this were taken from a sweet sci-fi short story that needed a bit of padding to qualify for feature length.  Even if you found the aging sexual exploits in Hope Springs (see my review in the 8/15/12 posting) not in your demographic wheelhouse, I think that most audiences could appreciate the sincerity of dwindling quality time remaining as presented by Langella in Robot and Frank while the amusing bits with the robot provide some unexpected insights on “interpersonal” relationships.  Here’s a case, as with Lawless, where crime does pay pretty well, if more so in emotional than in monetary gain (if you’d like to learn more about this film, you might start at

            If you want know more about Lawless here are some suggested links: (short background commentary by director John Hillcoat and a couple of the actors)

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