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Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012 06:08 am

Lawless a cinematic crime

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Shia LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant and Mia Wasikowska as Bertha Minnix in Lawless.

Since the advent of the DVD format, one of the more revealing features that many contain is that of the “director’s cut.” Studios have their reasons for trimming the films they produce and there are only a very few filmmaker’s who have the final say on how their movies ultimately appear on the big screen. As a sort of consolation prize, the director’s vision is allowed to see the light of day as an alternate version of their film when it comes to home video. What’s odd is that more times than not, the filmmaker’s version often pales in comparison to the one that was released theatrically. Reluctant to cut anything that they labored over, these movies are often bloated affairs that test the viewer’s patience. It becomes obvious why certain scenes were cut.

The only exception I can recall is with Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, a rousing and moving account of the Crusades that benefitted mightily from the additional 45 minutes added which made up the director’s true vision. I wonder if I will have a similar reaction if John Hillcoat’s version of Lawless is made available. The film’s star, Tom Hardy, stated in an interview at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year that a three-hour version of the film exists, something confirmed by the director himself. It’s a shame that Hillcoat was forced to trim over an hour of the footage because, as it is now, Lawless is a shambling, shapeless mess of a movie, though one with grand ambitions and a potentially fascinating story.

Based on the historical novel The Wettest County in the World, the film focuses on the Bondurant clan, three brothers who live in the backwoods of Virginia and who are doing all right for themselves making moonshine during prohibition. Howard (Jason Clarke) is about as smart as a sack full of hammers but he’s got the muscle that’s needed in tight situations. Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the youngster who doesn’t think past the end of his nose. But it’s Forrest (Tom Hardy) who’s the scary one, the man who speaks more in grunts than words.

When outsiders come calling, these three are forced to pull together in a way they never have before. They don’t have to worry about G-Men, T-Men or Revenuers, but gangsters from Chicago who are intent on taking over their business and leaving them dead by the side of the road. Chief among them is Charlie Rakes, played by Guy Pearce sans eyebrows, a sadist who gets off beating addle-brained youngsters to death.

The film’s first hour is quite good as we see this culture clash coming to a head and are introduced to Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). She’s a city girl who winds up on the stoop of the Bondurant’s general store and eventually manages to get more than a grunt out of Forrest, and Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), a Chicago mobster who makes a grand entrance and intends to set up shop in Franklin County. I had no doubt that in the hands of these two fine performers these characters would add considerable heft to the story.

Imagine my surprise when Banner literally disappears, without explanation, after the film’s halfway point, while the independent Maggie is treated as nothing but window dressing when the going gets tough. Plot lines begin to come into focus, then the story shifts to another plot line without fully developing any of them. This makes for a fractured narrative as does the fact that there are huge gaps, particularly in the relationships between Forrest and Maggie, as well as that of Jack and local good girl Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), that leave us wondering just how they reconciled the many issues that spring up between them.

With such a solid cast, wonderfully rendered period details and a fascinating piece of American history that’s been relatively unexplored on the big screen, the piecemeal movie that is Lawless is a narrative crime perpetrated by the Weinstein company. Hopefully, the film will be given a reprieve when it makes its way to home video and we can better judge just what Hillcoat set out to do.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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