Movie Review >> Lawless: Far from Flawless; Robot and Frank: a Winning Duo

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John Hillcoat’s Lawless purports to tell the story of the resilient Bondurant brothers who sold moonshine in Virginia during the 1930s  and allegedly achieved some degree of legendary stature…at least in the eyes of Matt Bondurant, the relative who wrote the book (The Wettest County in the World) on which the film (written by Nick Cave) is based.

If you see the film, these bootlegging brothers hardly seem worthy of that stature: sure they’re crafty, daring, rebelliou—but also (according to the film’s narrative) ornery, senseless, careless, guileless, and occasionally downright stupid.  Conflict is introduced early on when Guy Pearce’s sadistic federal agent appears to either get a share of the brothers’ bounty…or destroy them lock, stock and barrel (literally).  That it takes Pearce almost two hours of screen time to find their hidden still is one of many narrative flaws in the movie, flaws that might be less apparent if the film wasn’t so self-consciously lyrical: while admiring the cinematography, one has a great deal of time to consider the implausibility of the brothers’ actions and choices.  When the film should be building toward its inevitably blood-soaked climax, it tends to lurch in a haphazard, spasmodic manner.

Lawless is populated with fine performers: Gary Oldman is fairly dynamic—albeit in an extended cameo–as an established bootlegger who enters into business with the Bondurants;  Jessica Chastain gets to adorn the scenery as an attractive woman who finds refuge with the brothers; Tom Hardy gets to glower and brood  as the most legendary Bondurant of them all, and Guy Pearce makes the agent into an entertainingly glorified dandy.  With such fine actors as these jockeying for precious screen time, it’s a shame that the lion’s share of the footage goes to the bland and colorless (notice I did not include a qualifier such as ‘relatively”) Shia La Boeuf.  If ever anyone mastered the trick of being simultaneously sullen, callow, monotonous and vacuous, it is Mr. La Boeuf.  No doubt because of the strength of the Transformers franchise, Mr. La Boeuf has been permitted to lend his dubious talents to a number of films (as in the sequel to Wall Street), becoming the equivalent of a cinematic vampire who drains the narrative energy out of any enterprise.  One can only hope La Boeuf’s legacy does not prove to be as enduring as the Bondurants’…

Frank Langella is a marvel in the amusing yet melancholy Robot and Frank.  Set in a near-future in which robots (with some amount of agility) will be employed as companions, Langella plays Frank, a retired cat burglar whose failing memory arouses the concern of his adult children, particularly James Marsden’s well-meaning Hunter, who provides Frank with a versatile robot (voiced sensitively by Peter Saarsgard).  At first Frank is hostile to the robot, bristling at the inference that he can’t handle his own affairs anymore—until he decides the robot might make a useful accomplice…

Robot and Frank,  beautifully directed by Jake Scheier from Christopher Ford’s incisive screenplay, touches on a number of ideas: coming to terms with aging and mortality; the loss of individuality in an increasingly digital and impersonal world; the struggle to maintain family ties as one grows older; the tricky nature of memory; the difficulty of finding meaning in one’s life; and most movingly, the importance of friendship as exhibited not only with Frank’s relationship with the local librarian (warmly played by Susan Sarandon) but also the evolving friendship between Frank and the robot-whom Frank refers to yearningly as the son he didn’t have.  In the end, this is Langella’s movie, and he makes Frank irascible, sometimes cruel, occasionally cunning—and in the end, likable and heartbreakingly human.

Mike Peros
Author: Mike Peros

Mike Peros is an author whose new book, JOSE FERRER: SUCCESS AND SURVIVAL, the first biography of the Oscar and Tony-winning actor, has just been published by the University Press of Mississippi, while his previous book, DAN DURYEA: HEEL WITH A HEART is now available in paperback.