Coming to the big screen this week is the story of three brothers who made and ran moonshine in Franklin County, Va., based on a book by local novelist Matt Bondurant with a screenplay written by Nick Cave.
This indie release, directed by Aussie John Hillcoat, brings together a stellar cast in what ultimately is a beautifully filmed ultra-violent action drama, but a missed opportunity to go deeper. What we get is a temporarily diverting two hours, but a film that doesn't really stay with you or scream "classic'" after the credits roll. One thing does stay with you long after the twitch-inducing violence recedes from your memory: the acting.
Tom Hardy as the laconic and mythically indestructible head of the family is compulsively magnetic to watch onscreen. Never has a character treatment been rendered so complex with so few syllables. He grunts more than speaks. Movie lovers, I know we've all been offered the "Hardy's the new big awesome" Kool-aid. It's officially time to take a swig.
Jason Clark as the alcoholic war-ravaged oldest brother has the most stable accent (there are multiple trouble spots in accent territory) and is also consistently compelling. He is the emotionless muscle of the operation, but often lets his drinking to black out get in his way. We see his damage and genuinely feel for him, even as he pummels their unwitting adversaries into a crush-nose pulp.
Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain's roles are pivotal albeit all too small, but they do wonders with what is a bit cliched. Chastain is given a one-note character as Maggie, the mysterious gal from the big city satisfied to calm her life down by wiping and waiting tables at a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere. She may have little to say or do but as Forrest's love interest she smolders. She and Hardy could burst the screen into flames, they have such chemistry.
Wasikowska as Bertha, Jack Bondurant's love of a preacher's daughter walking on the wilder side, glows in a nuanced performance playing up the character's innocence and reticent acceptance of his affections with a chastising glance here, a meaningful yet shy smirk there.
Dane DeHaan plays Cricket, Jack's cousin and partner in moonshine-making. The character is a sweet and simple soul, and DeHaan brings a truth and fragility to him that is heartbreaking. Last seen in the movie "Chronicle," here's hoping he continues his upward climb in Hollywood.
Guy Pierce, as the sadistic Charley Rakes, the pomaded and puffed up dandy of a "special agent," takes his performance way over the top and still fascinates. Walking away after beating someone nearly to death, he tut-tuts as he notices blood on his pretty purple gloves. Pierce never met a movie he couldn't enhance by a little scenery chewing, but his character as written is as one-dimensional as Simon Legree.
Gangster celeb Floyd Banner is played by Gary Oldman, in a disappointingly "you blink, you missed it" near-cameo. No one has ever said "Jeez, enough of Oldman already. That's enough screen time for him…" File under missed opportunities.
Shia LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant has the biggest challenge, as the runt with a wavering moral compass constantly trying to prove he can keep up with or advance past his elder brothers. The audience must be on his side. In his role, he mustn't be too unsympathetic nor too much a cliche of "the good one."
His earnestness and his cockiness are in a constant battle.
Though he starts out coming off as merely petulant and annoying, as the film wears on, his portrayal goes deeper, and we see more of his talent and developing skill as an actor than in any previous role. He finds ways to show his internal struggle, recklessly making both good and bad choices without losing the audience's favor. It is no wonder he was such a champion of getting the film made.
The script doesn't do him many favors. Clunky narration distracts and builds audience distance from the impressive no-holds-barred acting each time it is injected in the proceedings, thwarting forward movement. Nick Cave seems to vacillate between wanting a stark set piece character study and a gritty ultra-violent actioner. As a result, the violence meant to be taken as matter of fact is too jarring, and it isn't until hours after the film concludes that the actors' hard work sinks in.
It takes what could have been on par with Hillcoat's The Proposition in quality and genre expansion and sets its limits at being just another entertaining period drama with tommy guns and fast cars. No offense to Nick Cave (who did such a great job screenwriting Hillcoat's other films). It makes me wonder if novelist Matt Bondurant, who has strong ties to the raw material, as it is based on the story of his grandparents and his grandfather's brothers, would have made the film deeper and more cohesive.
Director John Hillcoat has built a well-deserved following with his genre-reinventing film The Proposition and the bleak yet lyrical The Road. While this movie doesn't reach the heights of those films, it is better than most dramatic action films you'd see, and with far superior acting. It also marks another (all too rare) time where an indie film has both drawn big names, and filled many more screens than usual for a release not from a major studio. We moviegoers should support that whenever we can.
If you can stomach the brutality, the acting is certainly worthy of your time, as does knowing the real story on which it's based happened only hours away.
Besides….who doesn't want to see IT boy Hardy and IT girl Chastain barely speak yet burn up the celluloid?
Editor's Note: Novelist Matt Bondurant, author of "The Wettest Country in the World", on which the film "Lawless" is based, will speak at the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University on September 28.