‘lawless’ is one of those films “based on true events” where you’re left compelled to read the book from which the story was sourced. a prohibition era blue ridge gangster film, so brutally violent, crass, and messy, it leaves a sour taste about the state of humanity (despite documenting events some 80 years in the past).
in an age where individuals can legally sell assault rifles but you can be sent to prison for many years if caught peddling marijuana, this film serves as a healthy reminder that we’ve lived through some bizarre and ludicrous laws. i don’t know enough about prohibition to really understand what faulty logic was behind imagining we could live in a dry country, but the result was clearly catastrophe, ushering in a time of organized crime that will fuel legend and hollywood for centuries. the film’s purpose seems to be to show that desperate people will behave desperately, violating what laws they can if it means a buck. if a law unfairly restricts something the masses really want, well, it doesn’t take much to see the disastrous direction of that equation. And prohibition era or otherwise, this is not a lesson we seem to have learned.
with strong performances, a solid vengeance driven narrative, and an engrossing subject matter, the film never drops the audience’s attention. where the film is less successful is in developing complete female characters. if you have two terrific actresses in jessica chastain and mia wasikowska, why not use them? instead ‘lawless’ delivers two by now unfortunately classic underwritten females, chastain playing the concerned “wife” and wasikowska playing the innocent/pure love interest. i’m not sure which is worse, a film with no female presence or a film with this style of irrelevant female presence.
to be fair, without knowing the history it can’t be said whether there were any definitive female players in the criminal lives of the bondurant brothers, but my assumption as the film perhaps correctly shows is that it was was a very male-centric world. with this in mind it seems the film wanted to humanize this harsh world of unbridled violence with love (enter chastain and wasikowska), but the result here is to relegate women once again to simply being a voice of concern that has no ability of its own. we don’t ever learn why maggie (chastain) actually came to franklin county, even after a promising first scene where we’re led to believe she holds some grand and captivating secret. she is left to look elegant and fragile for the rest of the film as she watches forrest go off on yet another dangerous enterprise. bertha’s (wasikowska) essential function in the film is to reluctantly disapprove of jack’s behavior with a glint of her own rebellious attitude. add in a poorly developed, ugly, and unnecessary sexual assault and between these two characters you’ve hit typical hollywood treatment of female characters out of the park.
furthermore, the revolting antagonist of charlie rakes (guy pearce), a transplanted chicago policeman with a relentless dedication to drying out franklin county, is portrayed with admirable zeal, but with insinuations of “questionable” sexuality (in one particularly brutal sequence, rakes takes out his anger for being referred to as a “nance” by one of the bondurant clan). with his oil-slicked, off-putting, middle-parted hair, stylish fashion, and foppish perfumed airs, as the true evil of the film (we are after all expected to root for the bondurant brothers in spite of their heinous acts) it seems a shame the filmmakers decided to add unsettled sexuality as a confirmation of the character’s perverseness.
a film never less than compelling in terms of its forward momentum and tension of potential brutality, there’s a lot left to be desired in terms of its development of character’s other than tough-minded, ruthless killers. the film starts with one of the bondurant clan at young age being incapable of shooting a defenseless animal and the journey of the film seems to be acceptance of his own killer instinct. but there is no movement towards goodness in this world in spite of the film’s neatly wrapped denouement, as the culture he embraces is utterly devoid of kindness or moral compunction.
lawless certainly, but flawless, far from it.