Old Timey, by David Bax
There are both good and bad connotations to the term “old-fashioned.” At times, it can refer to things that have stood the test of time or things that have regrettably gone out of fashion. John Hillcoat’s Lawless hits some of these points with its familiar tale of American can-do ambition overcoming slimy corruption as well as its remarkable attention to period detail. At other times, though, the term can refer to things that are rightfully outdated; things past which we have progressed. Ultimately, with its rote execution and regressive politics, Lawless is the bad kind of old-fashioned.
Shia LaBeouf plays Jack Bondurant, the youngest of three brothers who make and traffic moonshine in the waning days of prohibition in rural Virginia. Jack has never quite earned the respect of his older siblings, Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke). When the order of things gets upset by some intruding Chicagoans – a criminal (Gary Oldman) and a cop (Guy Pearce) – Jack steps up and does his best to see that the family business survives and thrives.
Early on, it becomes apparent that the problems with Hillcoat’s The Road have not been properly addressed. Despite an ability to find one or two intriguing compositions per scene, Hillcoat continues to lack the ability to find the context that would make these images impactful. Furthermore, the pacing between sequences is muddled. It’s often unclear how much time has passed from one scene to the next. The film feels like a rough cut that needs tightening up.
Most of the cast do their best to pick up the slack. LaBeouf is as good here as he’s ever been, making use of his natural, boyish charms not just to shine on screen but to highlight Jack’s callow naiveté. Hardy is magnetic as usual, employing a clipped and grumbly mode of speaking that will not be unfamiliar to fans of Heath Ledger’s performance in Brokeback Mountain. Yet he finds ways to use it that are his own, including an unexpected amount of humor. Jason Clarke is good but deserves a better role. Dane DeHaan, recently of Chronicle and Amigo, remains an enormous and electric talent that has yet to garner him the accolades he deserves. On the other hand, Gary Oldman is overdoing it a bit (though Noah Taylor, as a fellow gangster, is overdoing it just the right amount). And Guy Pearce represents another set of problems entirely. More on him later.
The film’s women – there are only two of note – are shamefully underutilized. Jessica Chastain’s character, who has also come from Chicago (does screenwriter Nick Cave not realize that Virginia and Chicago are not adjacent?), quickly loses whatever mystery she possessed early on when she becomes a boring and subservient love interest for Forrest. Mia Wasikowska, meanwhile, succeeds in making us believe her character is a smart and unique young woman but fails in making us believe that she’d be taken enough to fall for Jack.
Really, the lack of attention paid to the female members of the dramatis personae is no surprise when considered alongside the film’s laughable preponderance of hetero-normative hyper-masculinity. This is where Pearce’s Charlie Rakes comes into play. The implications that he is gay and the correlation of that idea to his sadistic freakishness feel uncomfortably dated. He wears clean, tailored, black clothes with slick, dyed hair and leather gloves. Also, much like Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon, his perfume gives him away. There’s a particularly vicious brand of homophobia on display in Lawless and the characterization of Rakes is only the most glaring example of it. It’s there throughout, however, in more subtle ways, such as the nagging notion that the more care a man puts into his appearance, the more morally questionable he is.
Eventually, the film culminates in a violent visual metaphor for anal sex followed by an emphasis on traditional marriage that would be satirical if it weren’t so earnest. If it weren’t for the copious and brutal violence, this would be the perfect film for Focus on the Family. Issues of cinematic construction are unfortunate but forgivable. Less so is the dunderheaded validation of all that is patriarchal, retrograde and intolerant. Lawless is not old-fashioned. It’s antiquated.