This is a brilliantly made movie, written by NickCaveand directed by his friend, John Hillcoat, based on the 2008 book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant. It is the fictionalized account of Bondurant’s family, the Bondurant brothers (his grandfather Jack and Jack’s two brothers), three bootlegging brothers operating inVirginia during Prohibition.
It’s sort of told through the eyes of the youngest brother, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), who starts out as a kind of naïf, but slowly develops into an equal with his brothers. Although brother Howard (Jason Clarke) is the oldest, it’s middle brother Forrest (Tom Hardy) who runs the business, acting as both matriarch and patriarch of the family. Hardy gives a memorable, Oscar®-quality performance, one that will redound in my memory for a long time.
What’s brilliant about the movie is not only the acting, but the evocative creation of life inFranklinCounty,Virginiaat the time. A period piece depends a lot on the recreation of the time period involved, and this recreation is superlative.
In addition to the three principals, the film is bubbling over with wonderful performances by Guy Pearce, who plays the really bad guy Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, Gary Oldman as a Chicago gangster, Jessica Chastain, who develops a special relationship with Forrest, and Mia Wasikowska, who plays Bertha, the chaste daughter of the local preacher who catches the eye of Jack.
An interesting aside is that LaBeouf was the one who sent the script to Hardy that got him interested in the movie. LaBeouf had met Hardy after writing him a fan letter, complimenting him on his performance in Bronson (2008). They struck up a friendship and started sending each other scripts. I was captivated by all the performances but Hardy’s stood out from all the others as the strong, silent guy who has a reputation as “indestructible.”
Everyone in the movie is an outlaw, the good guys, the Bondurants, and the cops, led by Charlie Rakes. In portraying a truly hateful person, Pearce gives a performance almost on a par with Hardy’s. He plays it in a way that makes him larger than life, but he never becomes so over-the-top evil that he’s unbelievable or camp.
The film is pretty violent and that could cause some to find it troubling. But this was a tough time inAmerica(Al Capone and the mob were creating their violence inChicagoandNew Yorkand elsewhere), and that’s what the movie is about, so you know what you’re going to get when you buy your ticket.
Hillcoat presents the story in a way that kept me glued to my seat. You might want to turn away occasionally, but you definitely don’t want to leave. It’s rare that you see a film in which the acting and directing are so good that they almost surpass the story you’re watching. This is one of those films.
Let’s start out with a confession. It seems to me that the dumbest, most inconsiderate people inLos Angelesare those who don their funny looking uniforms and ride their bicycles on city streets. For years I was a bicycle rider, riding my bike up the bike path from Marina del Rey toSanta Monicaand back. But then bicycle riders were courteous and respectful of traffic. Today they don’t care a fig that they ride double file, side-by-side taking up an entire traffic lane and cause enormous amounts of traffic to back up behind them. They are dumb because they don’t seem to realize that they are putting themselves and their 25-pound bike up against an army of 4,000 pound vehicles. But they don’t seem to care. They don’t care about their health and safety and they don’t care about the inconvenience they are causing the people driving cars who are forced to drive behind them.
That said, this is intended as a high-octane chase movie, but it falls short. I’m surprised that Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Wilee), who has been developing into a fine actor, would waste his time on a vehicle like this that is basically 91 minutes of people riding bicycles at high speed through traffic-ladenNew York City.
Burdening the movie is Michael Shannon, who plays a bad cop, NYPD detective Bobby Monday, who is bad beyond belief. He plays the role in such an over-the-top manner that it becomes comic relief. Often his sneering lines were greeted with guffaws from the audience.
Director David Koepp (who also wrote the screenplay with John Kamps) steals a concept from the new Sherlock Holmes films where Sherlock plans out his fights in advance and we see them in slow motion as he views them in his mind’s eye. Here Wilee sees his alternate routes as he’s speeding down the street with their terrible consequences and chooses the one that lets him get through without mishap. I didn’t like them in Sherlock Holmes and I don’t like them here.
I got tired of all the cinéma-vérité bicycle-riding shots of Wilee cutting in and out of traffic, going the wrong way on one way streets and running red lights with heavy, streaming traffic early on and started looking at my watch less than 30 minutes into the film. Alas there’s little story and the film continues with 61 more minutes of bicycle riding and chases.
Chase films can be fun if they are combined with characters about whom you can care and a story that is at least minimally involving. Both are lacking here.
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