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Thursday, November 29, 2012

DVD+Digital: City gangsters, country bootleggers and Lawless

Posted by on Thu, Nov 29, 2012 at 8:53 PM

Ask anyone around these parts and they'll tell you — them Bondurant boys mean business.

The Prohibition-era crime drama Lawless, new to DVD and Blu-ray this week, departs from the usual gangster film mold by moving the action out of the city and into the drowsy summers of the rural South. The Bondurant brothers — played here by Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Jason Clarke — are the most successful moonshiners in Franklin County, Virginia. Their apple whiskey fuels speakeasies from Kansas City to Boston. In a pinch, it can fuel your Model T, too.

The Bondurant operation depends greatly on the genius of their pal Cricket Pate, who rigs a moonshine still into the existing plumbing of a house. The revenuers can't figure out where the illegal hooch is coming from, since it never occurs to them to turn on the kitchen faucet.

The Bondurants aren't criminals, not really. They're just a proud and entrepreneurial family with a casual attitude toward the law. Rules are meant to be broken — stupid rules like Prohibition, especially. But when organized crime and crooked Chicago cops get involved, things get bloody. The violence in Lawless is deliberately startling and often juxtaposed with images of bucolic Southern loveliness.

The most interesting parts of Lawless drill down to the battle of wills between the city crooks and the hard country boys of Franklin County. As older brother Forrest, Tom Hardy carries the heaviest scenes on his massive shoulders. His brooding physicality is reminiscent of a young Marlon Brando.

Guy Pearce provides a nasty villain as Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, a dandified big city lawman with a troubling psychopathic streak. Jessica Chastain is sultry and sad as Forrest's love interest, and Mia Wasikowska has fun as a mischievous preacher's daughter.

The screenplay, written by the professionally intense Australian musician Nick Cave, is based on the historical novel The Wettest County in the World, which is in turn based on the true story of the Bondurant boys. The collision of the gangsters and the moonshiners makes for an interesting crime drama twist, but LaBeouf has trouble holding the center as younger brother Jack. He gets squeezed right out of the scenes he shares with more forceful performers like Oldman and Hardy, and even Wasikowska.

Director John Hillcoat (The Road) puts a lot of effort into the historical details. The art design and costuming conjure a particular time and place in 1920s rural America. Two included featurettes — The True Story of the Wettest County In The World and Franklin County, VA: Then and Now — provide context and background. One interesting thread explores how auto racing culture in the South has roots in the bootlegging and blockade running of Prohibition. DVD bonus materials can be particularly valuable in period pieces like this.

Lawless is an engaging crime story with some good performances and great design elements, but it's the historical aspects that linger afterward. Now I want to read up on this stuff.

Also New This Week:

Fans of the late, great rock band the Replacements will want to track down the curve ball documentary Color Me Obsessed: A Film About the Replacements. Director Gorman Bechard eschews the typical rock doc approach by dropping the usual archival film footage and artist interviews. Instead, Bechard focuses on the lore and mythology of the band, as told by famous and non-famous collaborators and fans, including critic Robert Christgau, Husker Du's Grant Hart and Greg Norton, and even cranky New York Times columnist David Carr.

It's a bold move to make a documentary about a band, without any actual images or music from the band. The concept only halfway works, I think. A big part of loving the Replacements was trading stories about the Replacements, and in that way the film is a cockeyed celebration of community. But the images and especially the music are conspicuously absent in key passages. It's weird to hear 20 minutes of Bob Stiinson stories without seeing a photo of him. Hardcore Mats devotees will appreciate the obsessive second-hand details; casual fans will wonder what the fuss is about.

Plus: Will Smith returns to the alien invasion beat with Men in Black 3 and yet another little boy sees dead people in the stop-motion animated comedy ParaNorman.

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Tom Hardy leads some hardcase country boys against vicious city slickers in this Prohibition-era crime drama.

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