I didn’t know this movie was a thing when I hauled The Boy to the theater to see it. But I guess director John Hillcoat (The Road) and writer Nick Cave (of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) have a following from working on a Western a few years ago called The Proposition, since everyone seems to be talking about that and comparing this to that.
The direction is solid as is the screenplay, based on the novel based on a true story based on stories from the novel-writer’s family.
Basically, the prohibition of alcohol turns the Virginian backwoods hillbillies—almost all of them, it seems—into moonshiners. Everything’s fine at first as the cops are just as happy to buy booze as anyone else, but then a special prosecutor from Chicago comes in and “clamps down”. Predictably, “clamping down” means making sure he gets a piece of the action. The Bondurants are too dumb and too indestructible (they believe they are unkillable) to give in to the new guy’s demands and meanwhile manage to piss off a big time gangster.
And there’s your movie!
Short summary is that The Boy and I liked it, though neither of us thought it was great. I kept thinking, “Boy, Prohibition sure was stupid. I’m glad we don’t do anything that dumb today.” But my sarcasm was lost on myself.
To get into the details: The acting was top notch across the board. The Bondurant brothers are played by Tom Hardy (fresh from his role as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, also Inception), Jason Clarke (Public Enemies—he probably should just keep the Prohibition clothes in his closet) and Shia LeBeouf.
LeBeouf gets a lot of flack, I think mostly for the idea (that he probably didn’t float) that he could take over from Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. But he’s really a fine actor, and he excels in roles like this: Where his two beefier brothers are all about brute strength and fearlessness, he’s a lot more cowardly, charming and probably not as smart as he thinks.
I mean, on the scale of wispy/wimpy modern actors, you got your Michael Cera at the bottom, followed by your Jesse Eisenberg, followed by your Anton Yelchin, followed by your Shia LeBeouf, followed by your Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who manages to play tough guys).
Anyway, LeBeouf is just small-framed, not really scrawny. He’s wiry, fast on his feet, and while easily intimidated (in this movie) relative to his brothers, the situations he finds himself in are ones most of us would find rather intimidated, if we’re being honest. LeBeouf takes a beating in this flick and is ostensibly the main character, though the movie’s really not that strongly focused on character evolution.
Tom Hardy, who grunts and shambles his way through the violence and danger, is oddly compelling. He keeps the film centered.
The acting is good all around: Jessica Chastain (The Help) as the city-girl-with-a-past; Mia Wasikowski (Alice In Wonderland) as the preacher’s daughter LeBeouf’s character has his eye on; Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) is the crippled-boy/mechanical genius.
Rounding out the cast are Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce. Oldman has a small role as a big-time gangster we wish we saw more of. (His story doesn’t really go anywhere.) . Pearce is the villain of the piece, and he’s wonderfully psychotic.
He’s lean and he looks effeminate, even, but he’s brutal and sadistic. The movie only intimates half the nasty crap this guy is in to.
Speaking of lean, man, these are some skinny people. Chastain and Wasikowski and DeHaan have found a millieu in which their emaciated physiques really fit in!
Seriously, though, guys: eat a sandwich. DeHaan needs to get to a gym, stat.
So, yeah, solid acting, directing, writing, lighting—the sound is mostly good, though the music is occasionally intrusive. It didn’t seem quite period-correct either. (I don’t know that that’s true, but it didn’t feel right to me at times.)
So, why isn’t it great? I think because there really isn’t much character development. The characters are interesting to start with but they don’t really change. There’s a lot of fine acting bits, and some good character reveals, but not really any change.
At one point, I began to wonder if it was a Michael Mann film, because it reminded me strongly of Public Enemies. But it was way more engaging to me than Mann films. Like I say, the characters are strongly drawn and even sympathetic, even when they’re doing brutal things. But they don’t change.
That’s my best guess, anyway. I’d probably recommend it, if you aren’t too squeamish.