[xrr rating=2.5/5]John Hillcoat’s films enact distinctly masculine fantasies, though they are of course different in nature from the pure testosterone of, say, the conventional action or exploitation film. Unlike the latter films, they mask the presentation of pure id, embodying the neurotic, split ego’s conflicted relationship to masculinity, which is simultaneously attractive and repulsive. For this reason, Lawless is an exceptionally brutal movie, one that exploits its naturalistic, “based on a true story” premise to fuel violent verisimilitude, but as ugly as this brutality is, it is nonetheless essential to reassert the rugged, well-tested masculinity of Hillcoat’s protagonists, whose suffering is meant to be beautiful and respectable rather than a product of self-indulgent fantasy. In his three most recent films, Hillcoat crafts these fantasies to reveal extremes of masculine expression. In The Proposition, a Western set in the Australian outback, “civilization” is defined as the space in which women are safe, and while it’s ostensibly worth preserving, the film is driven more by its various configurations of men relating to men outside of the domain of civilization, unfettered. The Road uses its post-apocalyptic setting to arrive in this territory even more directly with its story of a father and son. Notably absent is the son’s mother, who committed suicide before the main action of the film to make room for a purely male narrative. The title of Lawless makes Hillcoat’s themes, more instinctual than intellectual, as plain as ever before: outside of society, men can truly test their aptitudes to the fullest, seizing upon the essence of masculinity.

It goes without saying that the lawless, chaotic sphere of masculinity in which these films take place is very rarely appealing on any literal dimension. But even The Road, a film with a rawly horrifying and dispiriting premise, presents some twisted vision of a masculine fantasy in its survivalism and sense of honor. Clearly, that film’s protagonists are worth rooting for, but the same cannot exactly be said of Lawless. There’s hardly anything exceptional or worthy about the Bondurant brothers, a family of bootleggers during the era of Prohibition, and yet, they do end up endearing themselves to us in a handful of ways. This only makes it all the more apparent that Lawless is little more than a story of naked competition, which takes place most efficiently beyond the scope of the law, and it’s worth pausing to consider the implications of extolling lawlessness’ virtues.

Faced with Tom Hardy’s undeniable charisma—his performance as eldest brother Forrest is built almost entirely on a series of impeccably timed croaks, balanced out by bursts of savage violence, like a wobbly hick Muhammad Ali—we cannot help but give in and cheer on the Bondurants as they face off against Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a cartoonishly one-dimensional villain. If you zoom in tight, the Bondurants are respectable and likable enough, but examined from farther out, Lawless, no surprise to anyone willing to take its title literally, exists within an almost total moral vacuum. The Bondurants’ aim is plainly to profit, and even though we, from our perspective in the 21st century, put little stock in Prohibition as a legal or moral concept, that social and political context is merely decoration here, perhaps understandable given that the film was both written and directed by Australians. Similarly, as the soundtrack to a pivotal montage sequence, Hillcoat uses a country-folk cover of the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat,” sheepishly nodding at the flimsiness of the film’s historical realism.

Within this moral vacuum, all that remains is an almost tribal form of competition. Hillcoat ends one scene with a shot of two roosters (or cocks, if you will) fighting with one another, which is as naked revealing of the director’s aims as any other moment in Lawless. Later, youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf), his confidence bolstered after initiating some particularly successful sales of his family’s moonshine, poses for photographs with his best friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan), guns and roosters in hand as they stand in front of Jack’s newly purchased automobile. Even the scrawny can partake in fantasies of male virility, and in fact, Jack’s arc in the film amounts to little more than him acquiring the courage to kill another man. By contrast, women in Lawless serve to highlight masculine power and self-sufficiency through their need for protection. One particularly brutal image serves to illustrate Hillcoat’s gendered view of power and violence: a blade held up to a woman’s breast. And yet, both of the female love interests, Jessica Chastain’s Maggie and Mia Wasikowska’s Bertha, prove their suitability through their willingness to indulge their suitor’s essential masculinity. The relationship is complex, and perhaps the most ironic moment in the film is Maggie’s seduction of Forrest, who is rendered speechless and powerless in her assertive presence. The irony loses its force, though, because the scene is ultimately indistinguishable from juvenile male fantasy.

In some ways, Lawless is Hillcoat’s most interesting film because it is also his most honest. He risks alienating the audience with the film’s explicit violence—one scene depicts a particularly realistic throat-slitting—but the violence, as off-putting as it can be, feels truthful and forthright, an essential component of the film’s fantasy. Where Lawless fails, though, is in justifying this fantasy as anything more than immature wish-fulfillment. Unknowingly, Hillcoat treats this fantasy with an embarrassing seriousness. This is in contrast to a film like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, another film that attains the texture of fantasy. Where Refn’s film acknowledges the limits of its director’s fantasy life, never hiding from the fact that its violence is plainly repulsive, Hillcoat shrouds his film in the trappings of realism, which sanctions us to take it literally. But no one would take this fantasy of unbridled competition literally. Instead, it’s merely an escapist fantasy for men who have trouble acclimating to civilization, the space where women are not only safe but empowered.

  • Triple 9

    Triple 9 is a mostly thrilling genre exercise with some poor script choices. …
  • Five Years Later: The Best Films of 2006!!

    Five years is an eternity in the life of a film. When coming up with this feature, the que…
  • The Road

    The Road Dir: John Hillcoat Rating: 3.5/5.0 Dimension Films 113 Minutes One of my writers …
  • Revisit: Bamboozled

    In Bamboozled, there is no equivalent to this safe space of "blackness." …
  • Only the Young

    [xrr rating=3.5/5]We don’t spend very much time at all with the parents or guardians…
  • Ke$ha: Warrior

    [xrr rating=3.75/5]Following on the heels of “Die Young,” the first single fro…
  • Best Sellers

    Best Sellers has a wellspring of promise, but it cannot keep well enough alone. …
  • Rediscover: The Weirdo

    The Weirdo plays largely like a low-budget “ABC Afterschool Special” made by someone who s…
  • Cry Macho

    The 91-year-old actor-director guides his fictional charges and his audience through dange…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Revisit: Bamboozled

In Bamboozled, there is no equivalent to this safe space of "blackness." …