BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Although Lawless brings to life a violent little slice of U.S. history, detailing the Virginia moonshine wars of the last Depression, in many ways it is seeing the country through Australia’s eyes. Aussie directors have a long tradition of incorporating the landscape into their films, and Australian John Hillcoat, with the gory revisionist western The Proposition and the grim Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Road to his credit, fits easily into that mold. The film’s Australian roots go deeper though, it is Aussie rocker Nick Cave who supplies the script and the cast is dotted with Australian talent. There is also a toughness that is characteristic of Australian film, with little sentimentality and lots grunts from men of few words. Their perspective fits this cantankerous little gem well, it seems to channel the hard-bitten quality of the time, without the Southern nationalism a home-grown talent might be tempted to indulge in.
All this attention to setting and the wealth of talent involved makes Lawless smarter and subtler than the vast amount of films getting wide-release in multiplexes, it’s a beautiful and cruel tale that brings to mind classics like Bonnie & Clyde and recent rural dramas like The Assassination of Jesse James. But what it most reminds me of is a pilot for a cable TV on-going series, laying down all sorts of possible plot threads but leaving too much undone.
There’s much to savor though, as a band of four brothers, the Bondurant’s, are the violent power behind a bootlegging business that makes hooch so pure you can burn it in your gas tank. The brothers include the tight-lipped head Forrest (Tom Hardy, who just played the villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises,) the enforcer Howard (Jason Clarke) and at the story’s center, Shia Labeouf as upstart Jack, the Michael Corleone of the family. When a dispute leaves Forrest incapacitated, Jack is left to summon the manliness to run their bootleg empire. As Jack finds his footing, he is confronted by a new obstacle, a prissy, psychosexual government man named Charlie Rakes (a disturbing turn by Guy Pearce) who plans to wipe out the industry that has made the Bondurants rich (by hillbilly standards at least.)
Brutal violence can and does break out without warning, but it is all the details of the community that linger, the little church where Jack romances the preacher’s daughter (a moving performance from Mia Wasikowska, Alice from Burton’s Wonderland adaptation,) the blue flame dancing atop his moonshine as he boasts to gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman, also from Dark Knight Rises) and the handmade mini-factories distilling liquor in the Appalachian hills. Jessica Chastain also lovelies-up the screen as Maggie, the one-time dancer who has settled in town who sees a heart beneath Forrest’s gruff exterior.
Guy Pearce is a blast as the G-Man nemesis; he was so unrecognizable with his half-inch wide part in his hair and his fussy dress (including white leather gloves for when he’s ready to get nasty) that I spent the film thinking it was laid-back actor James Legros giving the most dedicated performance of his career. It’s a battle to the death that these forces are locked in, but after the film is over (with a silly happily-ever-after coda) I was ready to continue the bootleg adventures. The filmmaker left me either wanting more or feeling half-full, but by ending the film with so many of its promising characters unexplored, Lawless gives us not quite enough of a good thing.
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Shia Labeouf draws his share of sneers for his over-eager and earnest characterizations, but his method fumbling in Lawless is much preferable to whatever inner humanity Robert Pattinson is trying to channel at the center of David Cronenberg’s brave adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis. Pattinson, whose GQ-ready looks make him sort of the Ryan O’Neal of our times, barely gets by as the brooding, ever-patient vampire/suitor of the Twilight series, but as the brilliant twenty-something financial whiz Eric Packer, the actor is absent the tools for the job. I get the idea of going for a weary alienation, but listening to Pattinson delivers DeLillo’s brainy philosophizing, there’s little sense that the actor can grasp the meaning of his own dialogue. It is a role that could be transformed by a certain movie-star charisma (a young Robert Downey Jr. might have been ideal) but Pattinson is just a black hole at the center. As the mechanics of the story take shape you can begin to overlook this deficiency and Pattinson seems to improve with the quality of actors with which he shares a scene, but his casting is a problem the film never quite overcomes.
Beyond that, the film seems like a welcome return to perversion for the director, as Eric Packer’s grotesque wealth allows him to live in a nearly soundproof bubble in the middle of noisy New York City. The film follows the financier over 24 hours as he attempts to traverse the city in his bulletproof stretch limo on a day when traffic is tied up by both a Presidential visit and the death of rapper Brother Fez (K’Naan.) Cronenberg is the perfect director to capture the odd sterility of this pampered life, as Packer moves slowly through a New York that shows signs of falling down around his ears. From his limousine’s gloriously designed interior, Packer can do most anything: receive guests, have sex, and bend over for a rectal exam. Meanwhile the endless theorizing on the ever-evolving world that defines DeLillo’s work is placed into the mouths of lovers, girlfriends, assassins and business partners.
It’s a talking movie, lots of talk, and that alone is going to test a good part of the audience’s patience. When I saw it, more than one patron protested its talkiness by adding talkiness of their own, but with a cast including Mathieu Almaric as a protest pie thrower, Juliette Binoche is Packer’s art consultant and Paul Giamatti as Packer’s mysterious stalker, Cosmopolis throws engaging characters in front of the camera over an over again with welcome regularity. They are mainly prophesying doom for our character as his fortune begins to drain in the stock market and the image of rats begin to descend into the landscape, gaining ground as they nibble away at society’s foundation. Wherever this limousine is destined, it can’t be good.
If only Robert Pattinson could make us care, even a little, about this financier’s fate. Not since Cronenberg put painter/non-actor Stephen Lack at the center of Scanners has Cronenberg gotten so little out of a star. Will Packer save his marriage? Will his fortune turn to dust? Will he be brought down by surging rioters? Packer is such a cypher it is hard to know if even he would care. Putting such an under-developed star as a subject of a character study ultimately renders Cosmopolis as a great idea for a movie, while not being much a movie in itself.