Lawless, John Hillcoat’s new flick about Prohibition-era bootleggers and the government officials seeking to leech off their profitable flouting of the ban on alcohol, has all the elements of a good American crime story. It’s got two distinct criminal syndicates, one reclusive, taciturn, and reluctant to use violence, and the other deliberately transgressive. It’s got a suitably disgusting officialdom more interested in self-enrichment and control than in the law. It’s got a pair of female characters wriggling out of patriarchy. But unfortunately, somebody — maybe Hillcoat, or screenwriter Nick Cave (yes, that Nick Cave), or whoever decided Shia LaBeouf should have more lines than Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman combined — slapped those ingredients together in a sloppy, unambitious way. The souffle never rises.
The basic conflict of the movie isn’t between Hardy’s clan of bootlegging Bondurants and Guy Pearce’s vicious, greedy Chicago lawman. It’s between de facto leader Forrest Bondurant (Hardy) and his little brother Jack (LaBeouf). Where Forrest uses his local-legend status and massive bulk as quiet guarantors of stability, Jack is ambitious, image-obsessed, and self-deceived about his criminal successes. (Think of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, with more hair and less brains.)
There are lots of little problems: Pearce’s hardboiled lawman probably wouldn’t cringe and close his eyes when he shoots his pistol, and violent scenes rely as much on sound effects as any kung fu movie you’ve ever seen. But the big problem with Lawless is that the rural bootlegger protagonists feel every bit as synthetic and unoriginal as the baddies. Nearly every character is a cardboard cutout who blunders in predictable ways at the right moments to move the story through obvious beats. None of them ever feel like real people (despite good work from Pearce, Jessica Chastain, and Hardy). Some characters simply disappear from the story. There’s not a surprising moment in the whole two hours, but plenty of implausible ones.
These failures are all the more frustrating because the movie’s setup implies some interesting themes: organizational coercion, the contrasts between internal and external motivations for criminals, the difference between violence and power and the consequences of conflating the two. In its messy failure to say anything about those ideas, Lawless got me thinking about two crime stories that take a more deft touch to similar stuff.
2000’s Way of the Gun centers on two kidnappers willing to do violence to innocents in pursuit of their goals, but far more interested in the pot of gold than the rainbow they paint getting to it. The movie’s best scene has kidnapper Benicio del Toro and bagman James Caan talking shop in a bar. They deride the self-important jargon of corporate security and law enforcement types, before the subject turns to their own side of the lawbreaking street: “These days they wanna be criminals more than they wanna commit crime,” del Toro says. “That’s not just crime, that’s the way of the world,” Caan retorts. del Toro and his partner may be unconscionably quick to violence, but they are also businesslike, professional criminals. Like Caan, they are who they are because they’re good at it and it’s a living, not because of status symbols or adrenaline.
When HBO pulled the plug on David Milch’s Deadwood, TV lost one of its most thoughtful shows about violence. The titular goldmining camp’s uncertain future in the expanding United States drives the show’s plot, but the lack of law does not mean there’s a power vacuum. Saloon boss Al Swearengen is the camp’s capo at the show’s outset, and has his control tested first by a new saloon/brothel, and later by the organized might of George Hearst (implicitly backed by the legal forces that previously ignored the camp). Over the course of the show’s three seasons, Swearengen metes out violence in increasingly calculated ways. But even at the outset, when he uses his fists and Dan Dority’s knife to consolidate his holdings, the show makes clear that he understands violence is not power. Violence becomes necessary only in response to erosions of Swearengen’s power; its use is evidence of weakness, not strength. His minimally violent chess match with Hearst in the final season shows he’s internalized that lesson.
Deadwood’s other main character, reluctant sheriff Seth Bullock, follows a similar learning curve with regard to violence. But Bullock’s motivation is never power, and his violence is born of temper rather than calculation. Swearengen’s long game for the camp’s survival and his own enrichment stands in contrast to Bullock’s situational, morally-driven choices about violence. His abortive first-season friendship with Wild Bill Hickock seemed to reinvigorate his sense of righteousness, without imparting any of Bill’s weariness from a lifetime of killing. As the show goes on Bullock works to control his temper, but his desire to imprint rightness on every situation he encounters never flags. Swearengen becomes deliberate with his violence because that’s what his machinations require, but Bullock restrains himself (or tries to) out of a more internal conflict over what kind of person he wants to be.
Before it ever made the New Cult Canon, Way of the Gun lost $8 million at the box office. Deadwood pulled a couple million viewers a night but was always more beloved of critics than seen by non-critic humans. It shouldn’t be hard for Lawless to prove a greater success in business terms, but if it does Hollywood will continue to learn the wrong lessons about how to make violence interesting.