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Film Review: Lawless

Seeing Tom Hardy crack someone with brass knuckles is a thing of brutal beauty. Sure, we may be getting used to him doing that kind of thing by now (after all, we’ve seen him as the sadistic Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, cage fighting machine Tommy Conlon in Warrior and the crazy Charles Bronson in, erm, Bronson over the past few years), but when someone’s good at something, it’s often best to just let them get on with it.

The Bondurant brothers

In Lawless, Hardy plays Forrest Bondurant who along with his two brothers Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LeBeouf) are successful alcohol bootleggers, producing moonshine during the Prohibition era. Forrest is the bumbling hard man who is in charge of operations, whilst Howard likes to sample the moonshine a little too much. Jack is the runt of Bondurant litter and is in the constant shadow of his older brothers.

All is well in the bootlegging world until Special Detective Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is employed with shutting them down and will go to extreme lengths to ensure he does so. However, Forrest and his brothers aren’t keen on going quietly. The film is based on a true story and adapted from Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World.

One of the most striking things about Lawless is how violent it is. There are throats slit, necks broken and skulls caved in, and there are times when it can feel a little unnecessary and over the top. Indeed, at times the violence threatens to define the film, especially considering the somewhat flimsy plot.

Hardy & LeBeoufThere’s enough to keep the story going but there’s little else going on aside from the usual good guys vs bad guys story arc. However, it’s interesting working out who the good and the bad guys actually are. The Bondurant brothers are the ones breaking the law, yet it’s they who we root for, not the authorities trying to uphold the law.

The actual issue of bootlegging is nothing more than a MacGuffin; the real focus of the film is the relationship between the brothers and their struggle to adapt to changes in the law and technology. Due to this, it very much feels like it should be a character driven film, but with little exposition and character development (aside from perhaps Jack), it falls short on this front also.

There’s some confusion as to who the film wants to make its real protagonist. It’s narrated by Jack, but for large portions of the film the focus is firmly on Forest. It shifts between the two throughout, whilst Howard remains nothing more than a secondary character. And talking of secondary characters, there is criminal under use of the film’s leading ladies. Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska) is the daughter of a local preacher and becomes Jack’s love interest in the film, whilst Forrest’s attentions are turned by city girl Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). Again, Howard doesn’t get a look in.

Both of these characters feel a little like an after thought, as if the filmmakers realised they hadn’t actually included any women in the script and so wedged them in where they could, which is a shame because they do add another dimension to the film and the actresses’ performances are excellent. Gary Oldman is also reduced to little more than a cameo; again, his character, mobster Floyd Banner, could easily have had a little more screen time. In fact, there are so many interesting characters that Lawless could well have been a mini-series, offering more time with each, although Boardwalk Empire has pretty much got that period sewn up right now.

Special Detectice Charlie RakesAlthough this review has been quite damning, there is a lot that Lawless gets right. It’s not just Wasikowska and Chastain who provide top notch performances; the acting is superb across the board. Hardy once again proves he’s much more than just muscle, and even Shia Lebeouf proves he’s got some talent there after all. With Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac on the horizon, LeBeouf is clearly trying to move away from the Hollywood blockbusters that have earned him a somewhat tarnished reputation. Dane DeHaan also gives an entertaining performance as the brainy but rickets-riddled Cricket who help the brothers with their operation.

It’s arguably Guy Pearce’s Detective Rakes who’s the star of the show, however. His creepy, eyebrow-less visual is enhanced further by his equally creepy demeanour and willingness to go to any lengths to stop the three brothers. Pearce is superb as Rakes, giving the role the attitude and uneasiness it requires.

The film also looks absolutely fantastic. Director John Hillcoat has created a totally believable snapshot of the Prohibition era; the costumes, locales and cinematography all help create an incredibly rich mise-en-scène and a world you want to invest your time in. There’s also an excellent original soundtrack, but with Nick Cave behind the script (and some of the tracks), the music was always going to have elevated importance.

Whilst Lawless doesn’t quite reach the epic heights it clearly aspires for, it’s still an excellent watch with great performances and an interesting, if sometimes one-dimensional, narrative. It could, and perhaps should, have done a little more with the subject matter and the characters, but what it has done is immensely enjoyable and a worthy addition to all of the actors’ filmographies.

Words: Chris Thomson

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Film review: The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises

With great power comes great responsibility.

Yes, yes, that’s a whole different suit o’ spandex, but it could so easily apply to the pressures surrounding Christopher Nolan approaching The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan rebooted a Batman franchise that was in dire need of an overhaul and did so to an effect that no-one could have expected. Batman Begins brought us Batman’s origin story and perfectly mixed action and sentiment, whilst The Dark Knight introduced Heath Ledger’s Joker, creating one of the most memorable comic book film villains ever. Many have hailed TDK has the greatest superhero film of all time, so just how do you follow that?

It wasn’t too long before we were introduced to Bane, the beefcake who was to take over villainous duties from The Joker, duking it out with Bats amongst literally hundreds of extras, showing that Nolan clearly wanted to show people that he was thinking big. We also got told that a certain Miss Selina Kyle would make an appearance and then the trailers arrived featuring some huge explosive set pieces. It seemed as if Nolan was right on track to concluding the series in spectacular fashion.

We pick the story up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight with Gotham in a time of peace following the work done by the late Harvey Dent and Batman seemingly gone forever. Bruce Wayne is doing a Howard Hughes and has become a recluse in Wayne Manor. However, following the emergence of the terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy), who is plotting something terrible for Gotham, Wayne decides to suit up once more to put a stop to his evil plotting.

BaneAll the major players are back for more; Alfred (Michael Caine), Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), etc, but we also get the introduction of a few new faces. Of course there is Anna Hathaway’s Selina Kyle (not Catwoman, technically), but we also get Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake, a young cop in the mould of Jim Gordon, and Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate, a businesswoman desperate to get a nuclear energy programme up and running with Mr Wayne. These new characters add plenty more depth to the story, having various different influences on the final outcome. Of all the new additions, it’s Selina Kyle that is the most significant. Many believe Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman to be pretty definitive but Hathaway is superb as the feline femme fatale, managing to successfully capture the good gal/bad gal dynamic that is so essential to the character.

Then we come to Bane. The previous villains in the trilogy were all very much human characters in the comics, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch for Nolan to drag them into his real world imagining. However, Bane is a little different. Although still human, he is traditionally of superhuman size with stupendously large muscles. Enter Tom Hardy. Hardy’s physique has become rather renowned after turns in Bronson and Warrior, so it’s no surprise to see him chosen to join the Inception reunion. Much had been made about Bane’s voice in TDKR but the problem was negligible; the evident post-production dubbing has ironed out much of the issue, with only a couple of instances that may leave you trying to work out what was said.

Bane is a fine addition to this Batman’s Rogues Gallery, along with Ra’s Al Ghul, Scarecrow and Joker, and most certainly makes up for the abominable portrayal of the character in Batman & Robin. However, much of his actions build up to something that doesn’t really take a near 3 hour film to tell, and there is a feeling with the main plot of a little style over substance. It looks fantastic throughout and the set pieces are certainly impressive, but they feel a little shallow at times and we rarely feel the true peril that Gotham is supposedly in; Bane’s motives remain unclear for much of the film, which does leave a certain sense story being sacrificed for plot. The film, and particularly its climax, also descends into cliché at times which detracts a little from a franchise that has laid a foundation of doing things differently.

The action is nicely punctuated with more touching moments to give a change of pace and give the film a more of a Batman Begins feel; Bruce and Alfred’s emotional showdown is a highlight of the trilogy, and even Bane isn’t completely immune to a tug on the heartstrings. Alfred is the trilogy’s emotional core and once again he provides the perfect grounding for Bruce’s daredevil lifestyle. Over the three films, his story is arguably the most poignant of all. There are some plot threads however that feel underdeveloped that do nothing but add unnecessary confusion to an already packed plot.

It was always going to be difficult for Nolan to top TDK but he has done tremendously well to create a film that offers action in swathes but also a level of sensitivity that was missing from the previous film. TDKR is more character focused, harking back to Begins, which offsets the action set pieces perfectly. It might lack the originality of Begins and the depth of TDK, but TDKR is a fitting sign-off to a trilogy that has reinvented comic book adaptations and has shown that Christopher Nolan can handle both the power and responsibility bestowed upon him.

Words: Chris Thomson

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