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I suppose it comes inevitably with age, but these days films, songs, books, and all manor of popular entertainment come and go and I am none the wiser. When it comes to films, sometimes Netflix points out to me what I’ve missed, but not reliably so. One such push from them was the 2012 film Lawless.

I assumed, based on my unfamiliarity with the title, that it wasn’t much of a success. The title tells little and the poster adverts seem to push the name actors (Shia LaBeouf usually has top billing) rather then explain why one would want to watch it. In fact, it was only the subtitle, the even more bland “Based on a True Story,” that reeled me in. I was later a little surprised to learn that the film earned something over $54 million, more than doubling it’s production budget. The film was even nominated for the 2012 Palme d’Or*, one of 22 titles.

The film also stars Tom Hardy, whom I’ve seen (but had yet to happen at the time Lawless was made) as both of the Kray brothers in the film Legend. His portrayal of Forrest Bondurant is remarkably similar to his portrayal of Ronnie Kray. I began to question his acting range until I remembered he was also Reggie. Moreover, he was playing both of the Krays on the screen at the same time. Since Legend came after Lawless, it is very possible that he was directed to make Ronnie like his Forrest.

I was also taken aback by the writing credit. Nick Cave wrote the screenplay, based on a novel, namely The Wettest County in the World (2008), by a Bondurant direct-descendant Matt Bondurant. Nick Cave also did the music, but that isn’t so surprising. When I watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, also scored by Nick Cave, I realized that he is now involved extensively in film. Lawless is Cave’s second screenplay (with the first being western drama The Proposition which, like Lawless, was directed by John Hillcoat). The project grew out of initial work of these two.

Nick Cave also has a minor part in this film. He gets himself shot up in the street by “big time” gangster Floyd Banner early on in the film. We can’t even tell it was him as his face is never shown, nor does he appear in the credits. I’m relying on IMDb to get this fact right. Seems like a bit of a letdown after his cameo in The Assassination of Jesse James…, wherein he actually got to sing a song on-screen.

I had an amusing reaction when first watching that particular scene. I’ll share. As the gangsters’ cars roar into town, then-timid Jack (LaBeouf) hides behind his truck to observe the killing. Afterward we are left, momentarily, to wonder whether Banner might take him out (eliminate the witness) until Banner (played by the always-intense Gary Oldman) relieves the tension with a wink. At the end of this scene, Jack runs into the street, takes off his hat, and begins placing the spent .45 brass into it. I naturally assumed he was going to reload it. If it weren’t illegal to filch evidence from a live crime scene, I’d probably do it too. But I was wrong. He wanted the spent cartridges as souvenirs, particularly to give to his friend who had a fascination with the famous gangster.

Production notes aside, I found this to be a worthwhile film. The theme of three brothers against the world is a good one and it helps that the story is more-or-less historical. Technically, I found a little too much of the dialog to be mumbled – I occasionally had trouble understanding what was said. Also, the mix of historical record, fill-in-the-blank historical fictionalization, and cut-from-whole-cloth Hollywood storytelling makes for an uneven narrative at times. Not great, but good enough for me.

As with any historical fiction, one wonders how it speaks (or tries to speak, at any rate) to us today. The story of the “good” outlaws versus corrupt authorities is a timeless one. While it does not connect any dots between the failed prohibition of a century ago and the endless-war of drug prohibition, that might be a decent exercise for its viewers. What got me thinking, however, is that prohibition did not cause a collapse of society. A History Channel (heh) special reported that 99% of the citizens of Franklin County were involved, in one way or another, with the illegal liquor trade. Although there was violence and while the organized crime networks that prohibition created survive to this day, civil society more or less carried on as usual. Sometimes we are reminded about the fragility of society but this chaotic and violent episode reminded me of its resilience.

*The winner that year was French film Amour.