Film Lawless an Entertaining Prohibition-era Drama

LAWLESS (2012)
Directed by John Hilcoat
Weinstein Company, 115 mins,  R (violence and brief nudity)
* * * ½

Lawless probably flew through a mall near you with the speed of a Black Friday markdown. It’s hardly a masterpiece, but this Bonnie and Clyde-meets-Matewan-meets-The Godfather Depression-era drama is surely worth a rental. It features solid performances, a superb soundtrack, and a tense, taut screenplay, the latter of which may surprise as it comes from Australia’s Nick Cave, who also did much of the music.

Lawless follows the trial-by-fire of the Bondurant clan, a trio of brothers making moonshine in Franklin County, Virginia, during Prohibition. As most know, Prohibition was a huge failure in which the good intentions of self-appointed guardians of public morals clashed with the profit motive, individualism, and the gap between principle and desire. Its main accomplishment was to make ordinary people into outlaws, and to transform two-bit hoodlums such as Floyd Banner into crime moguls. The Bondurants lived in what Sherwood Anderson called “the wettest county in the world,” one in which nearly every resident had some connection to illicit liquor production, sales, or transportation. When locals encountered a roadblock, they knew it was local law enforcement stopping them to buy moonshine, not put the collar on them. Some of the best homemade hooch came from brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf). Forrest is the head of operations, partly due to local legends that cast him as indestructible; Howard is the half-civilized enforcer; and Jack is the younger brother who wants to be a player, but has a greater moral compass than stomach for violence.

All is tidy in Franklin County until an ex-Chicago cop, federal agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) shows up. Rakes is an oily dandy—and Pearce plays him with a delicious despicableness—who lived down to his name. He wants to extort the locals and rake in graft, not clean up the county. All of the locals cave in for the sake of staying in business, except for the fiercely independent Bondurant clan. Rakes’ ruthlessness amorality eventually touches off the Franklin County Moonshine Wars—think the showdown in John Sayles’ Matewan. Toss in two love interests—Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a tough cookie fleeing the city and developing a thing for the brooding, monosyllabic Forrest; and Jack’s hots for Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). Add a crippled-not-too-bright neighbor lad, Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan), reminiscent of Michael Pollard’s C. W. Moss in Bonnie and Clyde; and toss in for good measure Jack’s battles with his conscience (like Michael Corleone in The Godfather saga, and you have the arc of this story.

Is Lawless on the derivative side of the ledger? Yes. As I said, it’s no masterpiece. Still, the performances are very good. Tom Hardy has to convey nearly every emotion physically, as his vocabulary seldom extends beyond grunts and growls; LaBoeuf rockets between cowardice, charm, and resolve. Gary Oldman shows up in a cameo as bloodthirsty Floyd Banner, but you’ll probably prefer him to Pearce’s take on Charlie Rakes, whom he plays with the sort of (metaphorical) black-hat paste-up air of villainy we usually associate with bad guys in John Sayles pictures. Chastain is also sublime as Maggie, who is equal parts unflappable and vulnerable. Kudos also for a terrific soundtrack featuring Cave, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, and Willie Nelson. A word of caution: some of the violence is quite graphic.

The film is based on a historical novel written by Matt Bondurant, Jack’s grandson. Some of the movie is, of course, exaggerated for cinematic impact but, yes Virginians, there was a Franklin County Moonshine War. I’d recommend this film and you happened to take away from it the message that moralists cause more social problems than they solve, well who am I to say you’re wrong?—Rob Weir


Sense of An Ending Deserving of Praise

By Julian Barnes
Vintage, 166 pp. ISBN 978-0307947727
* * * * *

This short book—more of a novella than a novel—won Britain’s Man Booker Prize (the equivalent of the National Book Award) in 2011 and, for once, I applaud the committee’s choice. It is a book about time, aging, memory, and regret. It is also a work that explores not only endings, but our senses as well. As anyone over 50 knows, aging and memory aren’t the most compatible of bedfellows. We worry about memory loss (or trivialize amidst a welter of bad jokes), but do we also reify youth in ways we should not? Is aged memory any worse than the shallow perceptions of youth? Did we really “see” the things we claim to have “seen” during the callow days of youth? What decisions did we make oblivious of their impact? What consequences did we dodge?  

The novel opens in an English public school which, for reasons only Brits understand, is actually an expensive private school. It’s the sort of snooty place where young boys are taught how to become members of the upper crust, as well as the proper way to look down their noses at social inferiors. Our protagonist, Tony Webster, is an elite-in-making, though his family background is more humble. He hangs out with two other lads and all three like to pretend they are brilliant and clever. Enter the new kid, Adrian Finn, who really is brilliant and clever. Tony quickly befriends him, partly in the hope that Adrian’s intellect is a contagion he’ll catch. He doesn’t. Adrian eventually goes off to Cambridge and Tony to middle-of-the-road Bristol University, where he meets Veronica, his first serious love. Alas, like Adrian, she’s slightly out of his class. The relationship quickly unravels after an awkward weekend spent with Veronica’s parents. In the next several months Tony receives several other shocks, the news that Adrian wishes to date Veronica, and then the news that Adrian has committed suicide.

What happens to the promise of youth?  Was it ever promising in the first place? What really happened in the past? Pay attention to Adrian’s line that history is where the inadequacy of memory intersects with the insufficiency of evidence. In part two of the book, Tony is recently retired, a divorced father in his 60s, and of the type the British often call a “putterer,” the sort who drift through life ding this and that. Tony was not clever; he became the one thing neither he nor his schoolboy friends ever wished to be: ordinary. Tony lived more as an object than an actor in life’s drama. And so he probably would have spent his final days (an “ending”) had he not mysteriously received a small bequest from Veronica’s recently deceased mother, plus transference of ownership of Adrian’s diary. The fact that Veronica has possession of the latter and refuses to turn it over leads Tony to contact her.

No, this is not one of those trashy spring-love-renewed-in-autumn romances; it’s more compelling than that. The question of why Veronica won’t turn over the diary is met with another important but ambiguous line: “You don’t get it, Tony, and you never did.” What is “it?” Tony has several meetings with Veronica, each as awkward as their country weekend forty years earlier, and Tony still has no clue about “it.” Somehow, though, Tony thinks that “it” might be the “sense” that makes “sense” of his life. Memories come flooding back, but can he trust them? And can we, as readers, trust the explanations he imposes, Veronica implies, and other story characters reveal? Why is Tony so fixated on a single uncomfortable weekend from long ago? What really happened between Tony, Adrian, and Veronica? What does a man who has for decades lived beyond desire want from Veronica? And where is Barnes leading us? Is it a real ending, or merely a “sense” of an ending?

I suppose cynics might dismiss the questions Barnes raises as analogous to the pretentious- masquerading-as-profound forays into existential philosophy that Tony and his vacuous mates once pondered. Not me. I admired Barnes’s ability to make me care about such self-absorbed characters, and that he found weighty ideas to contemplate amidst the wreckage of their lives. It is a beautifully crafted book, elegant in its prose, and balanced between pathos and humor. Warning: If you need definitive resolutions, you may have to impose one. I have mused over this book for days and I’m still not sure if it’s a British version of That Championship Season, Chinatown, The Graduate, a mash of all three, or something else entirely. I’d love to hear what you think happened.—Rob Weir  


Vote for Putz of the Year

Vote on who gets this year's (dis) honor.

We’ve reached the last month of 2012 and it’s time once again for the annual Putz of the Year Award, given to the individual or group that manages to look dumber than a horse’s patootie. The rules are quite simple. One must have been a complete jackass within the given calendar year. I do not claim that the nominees below are the most evil or ridiculous characters on the planet, only that they’ve engaged in particularly galling behavior during 2012. Off the list are  Lifetime Lack of Achievement Awards for those who make a case for retroactive abortion: Eric Cantor, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove, Pol Pot, Kim Jong Il, Bud Selig…. I am happy to consider new lifetime nominees, but the 2012 nominees are:

1. Mitt Romney: If there was any doubt of the man’s absolute and utter inability to lead a nation, his classless comments after the election should remove all doubt. Why did he lose? He blamed it on “gifts” President Obama bestowed on “special interest groups.” The 47% remark was bad enough, but Mitwit went on to ID the special interests: women, young people, African Americans, and Hispanics. Let’s do some math here. Granted there are those who fall into multiple categories, but Bubba Romdum just dissed 96.9% of Americans! Yep. That’s how many fall into at least one of those categories. The week after the election some people were urging Obama to consider approaching Romney for advice. Don’t do it, Barack. Let the Toxic Mormon ooze back under the rock from which he came.  

2. Scott DesJarlais: Romney isn’t the only tone deaf Republican. Take Tennessee Representative Scott DesJarlais (please!). He’s a leading (dim) light in the anti-choice movement. But it seems that (Don’t-Beam-Me-Up) Scotty only thinks po’ folks need to keep their babies. All the time he was pounding the piety pulpit, DesJarlais found nothing wrong with pro-choice if the cradle threatened to rock his way. DesJarlais urged his now ex-wife to get not one, but two, abortions. He also counseled his pregnant mistress to get one. Apparently the hypocrisy barrier has been lowered to the point that it lies (operative word) with the underground cables.

3. Jeffrey Loria: Baseball always seems to produce its share of world-class jerks, but Snake-oil Loria takes the cake. First he blackmailed Miami officials into underwriting a new ballpark to the tune of $640 million ($1.4 billion over the life of the bond), and then he promised he’d spend money on the team. He did–for ten months. After spending a king’s ransom to sign players such as Mark Buerhle, Jose Reyes, and Heath Bell at higher-than-market prices, he surrounded them with bums that led to Marlins to a last-place finish. This after years of pocketing money plundered from the luxury taxes of so-called “big market” teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers. Loria held a fire sale and traded away all the good players so that next spring’s payroll is projected to be around $34 million, nearly 40% below the next lowest pay roll. This is extortion, pure and simple. Several things should happen. First, rich teams should sue Major League baseball to recover monies that went to the Marlins. Second, the city of Miami should rescind the bond and offer it to Loria; if he refuses to assume it, bring in the wrecking ball and level the damn stadium. That would still leave the city on the hook for construction costs, but it would be sweet vengeance. (It would also cover the mistake of building it in the wrong part of the city in the first place.) Barring that solution, jack up Marlin fees for everything–impose a surcharge of tickets, parking, and concessions; install toll gates on access roads to the park; raise utility rates to the site; and pass an “occupational privilege tax” that impacts every Marlins’ player, worker, and official. If this drives Loria out of the game, MLB will be the better for it. Ditto if MLB folds the Marlins.

4. David Petraeus: I couldn’t care less that he was having an affair. Petraeus, from all I can tell, was a decent general, and his personal life would be his own business–were he not the head of the Central Intelligence Agency. What galls me about Petraeus isn’t his morals, it’s his stupidity, arrogance, and complete ignorance of history. What the hell makes top public officials think that their dalliances will remain secret? If you don’t wish to be scrutinized, do what most people do and stay the hell out of public life. But when a man is in charge of secrecy and can’t keep a secret, it gives pause as to whether he should be in that position. To top it off, it looks as if his mistress had classified documents in her possession. Maybe national security wasn’t compromised, but under what set of logic does one entrust classified documents to a paramour rather than the spooks at Langley? The Petraeus scandal is on par with the philandering dolts who left their Little Black Books open to public view whilst trying to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.

5. The Anti-Choice Movement: The moralizing band of Neanderthals that refuses to STFU…. Most aren’t as openly hypocritical as Scott DesJarlais-–who earned his separate nomination–but what a band of misogynist jerks: Richard Murdock, Todd Akin. Rick Berg, Paul Ryan…. In Georgia, we got State Rep Terry England, who co-sponsored a “fetal pain bill” in which he compared American women to pregnant livestock such as pigs and cows. The Commonwealth of Virginia produced the idea that women seeking abortions should have to undergo an invasive IUD procedure; Oklahoma declared that fetuses were “persons” as did Missouri, Mississippi, and Michigan. (Does this mean they are also “corporations?”) There’s so much zealotry in this coterie of self-appointed guardians that I suspect it might be a cadet branch of the Taliban.

6. Gary Bettman: The National Hockey League’s Gary Bettman may be the most incompetent commissioner ever of a “major” sport. We must use the word “major” with caution, as Bettman seems hell-bent on destroying all interest in hockey and reducing its status to something on par with the Little League World Series. If you wanted to sabotage a sport, how would you do it? Move teams from places where people care to where they don’t? Check. Try to play a winter sport in places where the only ice rattles in mint julep glasses? Check. Shut down play three times in 17 years? Check. Align yourself with union busters, scabs, and robber barons? Check. We’re talking a figure so vilified that even some of the robber barons want his bones boiled down for pucks. Name one good thing Gary Bettman has done since he became NHL commissioner in 1993? Take your time… you don’t need to rush off to watch a hockey game.