Lawless reviewed by Armond White for CityArts

Atrocity Exhibition

By Armond White

Harvey Weinstein called for a summit meeting on movie violence soon after the Dark Knight Rises massacre. It hasn’t happened yet but Harvey’s word is movie law. So, instead, The Weinstein Company this week releases John Hillcoat’s Lawless, the most promiscuously violent movie since The Dark Knight Rises.

About the three Bondurant brothers of Virginia who were moonshine runners opposing corrupt Feds during Prohibition, Lawless (which premiered at Cannes months before the Aurora catastrophe) defies concerns about movie carnage by showing off an array of ultra-violence: a high body-count, several punched-bloody faces, numerous Tommy gun shootouts, rapes, throat slitting, even a detailed tar-and-feathering. This fake folk tale, recalling the history of violent Americana, combines the period nostalgia of Western and gangster sagas with the extreme ghoulishness of a horror flick.

Lawless contradicts Weinstein’s stated concern for the Colorado-Batman slaughter. The film’s acquisition and distribution the follows Weinstein Company’s usual procedure. As Weinstein said on July 26 “It‘s a question that I wrestle with all the time. I‘ve been involved with violent movies, and then I’ve also said at a certain point, ‘I can‘t take it anymore. Please cut it.’ You know, you’ve got to respect the filmmaker and it’s really a tough issue….I think as filmmakers, we should sit down–the Marty Scorseses, the Quentin Tarantinos, and hopefully all of us who deal in violence in movies–and discuss our role in that.”

It must pain Lawless’ director John Hillcoat, that he wasn’t included in the rarefied company of Weinstein’s short-listed violence-meisters. Hillcoat has worked at shaping a career of misanthropy, ferocity and perversion ever since his nihilistic western The Proposition and his apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Road. His movies are not meant to be fun. He literalizes the violence described in the murder ballad folk tunes favored by musician Nick Cave who wrote the screenplay for Lawless based on Matt Bondurant’s fictional account of family history The Wettest County in the World. Hillcoat has directed several Cave music videos and his feature films extended Cave’s casual fascination with death and violence.

That’s the problem with Lawless: it’s casual about Prohibition’s vicious history, Hillcoat’s relentless display of ruthless behavior and scary hostility exceeds concern with social accuracy, familial empathy–and the effect of violent sensationalism on audiences. Like the makers of gruesome horror-core movies and post-9/11 nihilistic dramas, Hillcoat pushes the shock of violence, pretending interested in a basic expression of mankind’s cruelty.

The Bondurant brothers–obdurate, invincible Forrest (Tom Hardy impersonating Kevin Costner‘s truculence), traumatized WWI vet Howard (Jason Clarke) and foolish, juvenile Jack (Shia LaBeouf) recall the warped, doomed camaraderie of the Corleone brothers. But this totally misses authentic redneck regional charm such as portrayed by Al and Jesse Vint in the country chase classic Macon County Line. Neither Hillcoat (an Australian) nor Cave (a Brit) grasp the fundamental American nature of the brothers’ hill country solidarity and class rebellion. As romanticized figures, their violence is as fraudulent and offensive as the killing and terrorism that Christopher Nolan plies so insensitively in his Batman movies.

It’s infuriating to watch the pretend Americana of Lawless; it recalls the same ersatz mythology of Andrew Dominkk’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Benoit Delhomme’s naturalistic cinematograph poeticizes the hill country territory while Cave’s script falsifies the realities of the 1931 Jim Crow South and the Prohibition era’s urban/rural contrasts. (Guy Pearce showboats as a ghoulishly freaky G-Man who disdains hill folk manners.) Hillcoat’s relentless violent accents make this family saga so disturbing they offend Peter Bogdanovich’s recent post-Aurora warnings about filmmakers’ responsibility.

Taking a more responsible tack than Weinstein, Bogdanovich told The Hollywood Reporter: “Even with all the murders in the United States since the Kennedys were killed, very few people have experienced murder directly…Generally speaking the average person hasn’t experienced it, and the average director hasn’t experienced it. I think if they had, they would make their films differently…It’s too easy to show murders in movies now. There are too many of them, and it‘s too easy. There is a general lack of respect for life, because it’s so easy to just kill people.” None of the horrors in Lawless (Hardy gets Frankenstein neck stitches, Jessica Chastain as his love-interest is sexually brutalized) strikes deep; it’s just repetitive ugliness, probably remote from anything Hillcoat or Cave know personally and clearly unconnected to the truth of America’s bloody history.

In dramatizing “The biggest crime wave this country had even seen,” Hillcoat’s credit sequence features white lettering that bleeds to red as in Bonnie & Clyde. The entire film rips-off genres anachronistically, including its final dinner table sequence stolen from The Deer Hunter. Not a crude filmmaker, Hillcoat is worst; he’s one of the least authentic. He aims for the pantheon of sadists mentioned in Weinstein’s call for colloquy but Lawless doesn’t capture the natural self-destruction in American rebellion that Walter Hill lamented so richly in The Long Riders. The sadistic torture porn of Lawless disgraces the legacies of Bonnie & Clyde and The Long Riders because Hillcoat’s artiness favors a cinematic charnel house. And Harvey Weinstein’s promise of a summit meeting plummets to hell.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair

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