Have you ever watched a movie that you wouldn’t normally gravitate to, simply because a favorite actor or actress was in it?
I’ve had my share of Hollywood crushes over the years: Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Sean Bean. And it’s not just men: there was a long stretch of time when I sought out every movie Nicole Kidman was in. This tendency has led to some wonderful gems (Ford’s Regarding Henry), and some terrible clunkers (Kidman’s Dogville).
My latest actor adoration comes in the form of Tom Hardy. He seems to be everywhere these days, but I’ve only seen him in a handful of films (I’ve reviewed Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant); back in my Star Trek Next Generation phase, I watched him in Nemesis, as Picard’s younger, alternate reality clone. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but I remember thinking, Who is this guy? His intensity and acting chops impressed me, but I never followed up, and only recently became aware of him again.
I came across Lawless on my new Netflix subscription (a bit disappointing; lots of TV shows, but not enough movies, in my opinion), and though it’s not normally something I’d choose to watch, I couldn’t resist.
Lawless is the story (based on true events) of the Bondurant brothers-Forrest (Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Jack (Shia LeBeouf)-running their Prohibition-era moonshine business in Franklin, Virginia in 1931. Local law enforcement looks the other way, but when Chicago Special Deputy Rakes (Guy Pearce) shows up and Forrest refuses to pay him off, real trouble begins.
The story revolves around the dynamic between the brothers, and the love lives of middle brother Forrest and youngest brother Jack. Jack agitates for more responsibility within the family business, while enthusiastically courting the local preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). Forrest, the leader and brains of the outfit, wants to maintain control. In the meantime, he hires a former stripper named Maggie (Jessica Chastain) as a waitress in their pseudo-business. Despite being able to slice up men without compunction, the laconic Forrest gets further tongue-tied around this pretty city gal. Oldest brother Howard seems superfluous throughout most of the film, but serves as the muscle within the business.
The Bondurant brothers believe that they’re invincible: Howard survived World War I, and Forrest escaped the flu epidemic of 1918. Forrest survives a vicious throat cutting, and Jack nearly gets killed by crime boss Floyd Banner (the venerable Gary Oldman, of whom I would have loved to see more). Plenty of violence permeates the film, right up to the shoot-em-up climax when Jack confronts Rakes after the corrupt lawman kills his sweet friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan). Jack is shot, and Forrest is riddled with bullets, yet they both survive while Rakes is shot and stabbed by Jack and Howard, respectively.
The brothers eventually go on to farming and marry their women after Prohibition ends, living peaceful lives with many children. Only dumb luck kills Forrest when he later falls into a frozen pond and develops pneumonia.
So was it a gem or a clunker? Neither. I found it be over-long and meandering, yet enjoyed the performances of the stellar cast. The women’s roles were disappointing, as their characters didn’t have much to do in this violent, male-driven story except wring their hands and wait for their men to come home, though both Maggie and Bertha showed indomitable spirit. I thought their willingness to overlook their men’s outlaw status and the inherent violence and extreme danger of their profession a bit unbelievable. Never mind that their husbands are raging alcoholics by the time the good times arrive. Ah well, love conquers all.
So not my usual fare, but not a complete waste of time. Hardy plays in another crime drama called Legend, in which he depicts twin brother gansters Ron and Reggie Kray in 1950’s London. Again, not my usual cup of tea, but a double dose of Hardy can’t be that hard to swallow.