Sunday, September 2, 2012
Head For the Hills
A while back I watched Ken Burns's latest documentary, Prohibition. I found myself riveted, but not because I give a hoot about alcohol per se. I've always been a teetotaler, and the issues of substance legality have not really hit home for me since I'm not constrained or impacted particularly one way or the other. (This is not to say the issues aren't real and important, only that they aren't in my front yard, really.)
But my main take-away from this three-part series was to reaffirm how magnetic this period of history is to me. (I've hammered on the point before, I know, but it's no less true for being oft-repeated.) There's just something about the vitality of the Jazz Age that I can't look away from. Flappers and speakeasies and Tommy Guns and cars with running boards and spare tires hanging off the back, Art Deco and fedoras and cross-country trains, and the exuberance of the Machine Age; all of it. Maybe there is some nostalgia formula that stipulates that one will always be in love with the era that existed (X) years prior to our own time (something Woody Allen explored to great effect in Midnight In Paris), or maybe I have my teeth in some actual phenomenon.
Either way, my love of the period naturally inclined me to see John Hillcoat's recent film Lawless, which offers a chance to again immerse in this world.
Well, a part of it. I tend to think of this era in predominantly urban terms, while Hillcoat's film is set almost entirely in the backwoods of Virginia (where the moonshine came from). Based on an autobiographical book by Matt Bondurant, the film tells of three brothers who run a family bootlegging operation. The two older brothers, Forrest and Howard (played by Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke), are roughneck hillbillies, guys accustomed to existing outside the law. The younger brother, Jack (Shia LaBoeuf), aspires to be in the business with his brothers but is not-quite-ready-for-prime-time. The story is as much about his rise to manhood (if that's the proper term) as anything else.
The conflict, apart from the trials and tribulations of several individuals fumbling to get from point A to B, comes in the form of a corrupt federal agent (played with relish by Guy Pearce), who comes to town with a mandate to clean up the region and a desire to get rich and make a name for himself. With the usual strategy of violence and brutality, he quickly gets the local law to play things his way, which puts the Bondurant boys at odds with many longtime friends and allies.
It's an ambitious story, maybe too ambitious for a two hour film. The script (by the Australian jack-of-all-trades Nick Cave) covers a vast cultural upheaval here, and so much of the rapidly-changing social landscape can only be hinted at--though kudos are due for attempting to translate the larger cultural unfolding into individual characters' lives. Those characters are all pretty well-drawn, especially the primary ones. Forrest Bondurant is an intriguing piece of work, competent and authoritative and far-seeing and tight-lipped, and he contrasts nicely with the loose-cannon naivety of his younger brother Jack. Jack carries on a youthful courtship with the local preacher's daughter (Mia Wasikowska), a plot line that plays better than Forrest's constipated romance with a displaced exotic dancer (Jessica Chastain in an improbable role). Chastain is great and lovely to watch, but her speech and bearing and clothing seem quite wrong for the setting (not of the wrong period, just wrong for the setting). The setting itself is scrupulously laid, with no stone left unturned to achieve an authentic period look.
In the end, though I was plenty happy to be immersed in the rough-and-tumble world of Prohibition, this is a mostly grim story, one where even the rays of sunshine carry dark omens. I was reminded of the series Boardwalk Empire; both tell stories of the same period of history. But Lawless just isn't given enough time to finish what it started--or it starts more than it can properly tie up. But if it fails it does so by a narrow-ish margin. It's tackling an ambitious story with a lot of characters, and it does reasonably well by most of them.