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Whoever decided to make a movie out of Matt Bondurant’s “The Wettest County in the World: A Novel Based on a True Story,” a story of bootlegging brothers in Franklin County, Virginia circa 1931, probably thought they could turn it into a kind of backwoods “Godfather.”
Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), like Vito Corleone, is the family patriarch who refuses to join the safety of a collective and gets his throat slit halfway through … but lives. Howard Bondurant (Jason Clarke) is the hotheaded, chick-banging brother a la Sonny. And Shia LeBeouf’s character Jack? Both coward and heir apparent. So both Michael and Fredo. If you can imagine Michael and Fredo as one man.
Here’s the big problem with “Lawless.” It focuses on Jack rather than Forrest, and Jack is a pain in the ass. He’s a coward who thinks a tough-guy image can paper that over. He has two older brothers to emulate, boys who save his ass time and again, but he chooses to emulate big-city gangsters like Al Capone and Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). When he finally gets a big score, he flaunts it. He buys expensive cars and expensive suits and gets his photo taken on the running board of his automobile with guns in his hands. He drags his friend, Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan), who has a limp from childhood rickets, into the business and gets him killed. He drags a lovely girl, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), a preacher’s daughter, Mennonite, I assume, to his still across town, and nearly gets her killed. He is given the chance time and again to prove his mettle and doesn’t but never owns up to it. He never owns up to his culpability. He never offers us, or the universe, a mea culpa.
The movie opens with young Jack, the youngest of the three, unable to shoot a pig at the family farm, forcing Forrest to do it. Then we get the status quo in Franklin County, Virginia, circa 1931. The Bondurants distribute moonshine in mason jars all over the county. So do others. But everyone respects each other’s territory. Particularly the territory of the Bondurant boys. Howard is an ass-kicking miracle while Forrest is a slow-moving, barely talking monstrosity with brass knuckles. He’s Bane without the iron lung and with a slightly better haircut. Then there’s Jack. Never mind. You know kin.
Forrest has a theory that the Bondurants are indestructible. During the Great War and Prohibition, everyone around them died and they were left standing. He carries this sureness with him wherever he goes.
But into this status quo, shaking things up, comes Virginia Commonwealth Attorney Mason Wardell (Tim Tolin), a powerful fat man in the backseat of a car, who wants a cut of the profits. He’s got with him, from Chicago, Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce), a bully dressed like a dandy: perfumed, a shaved part to his slicked-back hair, cufflinks and shiny shoes. Something’s gotta give.
It does. Rakes’ men cause a ruckus at Forrest’s place, a gas station/diner in the middle of nowhere, and get the brass knuckle treatment; but they remain behind and in the middle of the night slit Forrest’s throat. Oddly, at this point of vulnerability for the Bonderants, no one descends. Instead, Jack, on his own, sells moonshine at a greater profit to Floyd Banner, and he and Cricket Pate almost die for their trouble, standing in an unmarked grave. But when Banner finds out that Jack is a Bondurant, kin to that hothead Howard and his mule brother who walked 20 miles to a hospital with his throat sliced, he agrees to cut a deal. He even gives them the address of where Rakes’ men are staying. After Forrest and Howard descend, there’s not much left of the two, and they send Jack to deliver a package: the testicles of one of the men in a mason jar.
So at this point do we get all-out war? No. We get a montage of the Bondurants raking it in and whooping it up from their deal with Floyd Banner, along with a little unnecessary narration from Jack. I’m thinking: Really? Montage? It cuts the tension, for one. Besides, do both sides think the other is done? Do the Bondurants think Charley Rakes will go on home now? They’ve up the ante. Surely he about to up it back. Or at least call.
He does, just as Jack is showing off to Bertha. But thanks to Howard, Charley Rakes loses the upper hand, and Jack has the opportunity to kill him. He doesn’t. Did he just run out of time? Is it the pig all over again? Does he just not have it in him? Instead Rakes’ men find Bertha and Cricket Pate, return the former to her father, but allow Charley to walk off with the latter and kill him. No one in the county cottons to that, nor to Charley Rakes, who looks down on them all. And in the end, on a covered bridge, with his brother Howard backing him, and Forrest on the road with three or four bullets in him, Jack Bondurant is finally able to kill the pig.
Not with a bang but a whimper
“Lawless” was written by Nick Cave (yes, that one) and directed by John Hillcoat, the team who gave us the great Aussie western “The Proposition” in 2005. It’s beautifully art directed. It includes some of my favorite actors of recent years: the cooler-than-cool Tom Hardy, the stunning Jessica Chastain, the always lovely Mia Wasikowska. Dan DeHaan (“Chronicle”), a sickly-looking Leo DiCaprio, is an up-and-comer, either a future star or a perennial character actor. I’m always interested in what he’s doing on screen.
All for naught. I’m buying less and less the kind of cool Tom Hardy brings to the screen, but I’ll still buy it in the service of a good story. This isn’t that. There are too many characters for the time allotted. Chastain is wasted, as is Oldman.
Most of all: Fredo ain’t your lead. Actually Jack isn’t even Fredo. Fredo was self-aware and that made him interesting. Jack isn’t and isn’t. He’s as frenetic and shallow as Sam Witwicky. He’s a hollow man who thinks he’s full. I actually cringed as he courted Bertha. I cringed as he made his plans for wealth and fame. I cringed at the echo of “Goodfellas” in the end. Franklin County, Virginia deserves better.
December 17, 2012
© 2012 Erik Lundegaard