2012. 115 min. R - Bloody violence, off-screen castration, on-screen delivery of scrotum in a canning jar, nudity, language, implied rape, implied buggeryIMDB says... Set in Depression-era Franklin County, Virginia, a bootlegging gang is threatened by a new deputy and other authorities who want a cut of their profits.
The 73rd Virgin says... Well it’s better than The Proposition (below) from the same team of screenwriter Nick Cave and Director John Hillcoat. At least these violent characters have some demonstrable reason to draw their next breath other than to stare at the next sunrise/down.
Acting, sets, scenery, and several rather uniquely staged scenes of violence do a great job of covering for a plot and script that is pretty thin gruel and looks suspiciously like it was much more complex at one time.
Based on Matt Bondurant’s book which I haven’t read, this tells the story of the three Bondurant brothers in 1931’s Franklin County (IMDB says in Virginia – God that’s a long way from Chicago, but okay) where the entire county is apparently given over to brewing hooch for Chicago’s thirsty Prohibitioned speakeasies.
A series of very pretty, verdant, digitally-intermediated-until-they-scream scenes show us how remote and pastoral this county is. It’s a promising start.
We meet the eldest Forrest Bondurant who is given to soft speech, non-threatening sweaters, and shirts buttoned to the neck, even as everyone knows he is the scariest man in the county. One sweater pocket always contains brass knuckles waiting to be expertly deployed. Tom Hardy (Bane in the recent Dark Knight Rises) is physically perfect, but I am so sick of Brits trying to do a southern accent by talking like Ralph Stanley sings, that is, barely moving their jaws or lips. It’s not as embarrassing as Andrew Lincoln’s Georgia sheriff in The Walking Dead, but it’s bad.
Jason Clarke is the hulking middle brother Howard who is larger and dimmer and more alarmingly brave than Forrest. Shia LeBeouf1 is the younger brother Jack who is thought to be too sensitive to do much more than drive on moonshine runs, and sweep out the bar/restaurant/gas station/farm/distillery that the brothers maintain. Dane DeHaan channels “Gilbert Grape”-era Leonardo Dicaprio as local cast-off youth, Cricket Pate, who has a genius for making the best hooch and souping up a roadster.
The Bondurants are straight-up moonshiners who maintain the balance of power in the county by lubing up local law enforcement and not encroaching on other moonshiner’s turf. This is driven home in a great early scene as they happily deliver shine to a local black pimp’s funeral party and greet all the various clients and prostitutes as friends. All’s well.
But now it seems Chicago’s corrupt politicos have caught wind of someone making money without their involvement (some things never change) and send Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, in the otherworldly form of Guy Pearce, to whip the hicks into shape. Pearce is a wonder with carefully razored haircut, carefully razored eyebrows, apparently individually blackened hair strands, perfectly tailored three-piece suits, leather driving gloves that he daintily disposes of when they get bloody, and such carefully calibrated facial and vocal expressions that you feel like you’re meeting the most charismatic psychopath this side of Manson. At one point he is referred to as a “Nance” which I presume is a local contraction of Nancy Boy, because he’s a little long on cologne in a state that isn’t.
Gary Oldman emerges from his slumber to bring some spirit to Floyd Banner, a Chicago mobster who is mentioned in the same breath as Capone and Malloy. We meet him mysteriously machine-gunning a car in Franklin County and winking at young Jack as he leaves. We meet him later in a mystifying scene where his henchmen are hijacking Jack’s shine and he saves Jack from being murdered and then pays a high cash price for the shine. Then we don’t see him again. Ever. Search me.
We meet a beautiful Chicago stripper, Jessica Chastain, who mysteriously knows that the Virginia-based Bondurant’s need a bartender. And it should be obvious from her fondness for red that she should not be trusted and is spying on behalf of someone from Chicago, like maybe Floyd Banner, or maybe Charlie Rakes. Nope. She’s there to be hot and on the spot; to take one for the team by getting raped by Rakes’ thugs; to take Forrest to the hospital when he gets his throat cut at midnight (his bandage looks like a cozy pink scarf and he never even loses his voice). And much later to get nekkid for us and Forrest- in that order - since Forrest seems not to have noticed what horses, birds and bees do. Search me.
Finally, we meet Bertha Minnix, a wan teenaged girl with whom Jack will fall in love. Conveniently for the conflict needed in the plot, she belongs to a sect that dresses men and women like Mennonites, but apparently attends dances where moonshine is sold and where musical instruments are played. Indeed Bertha plays mandolin in the band, in her little head-dress – and lipstick - and all. When they actually go to church, there are no instruments. Now, I’m no expert on 1930s Virginia religious sects but maybe one of my 5 readers is2. Search me.
And that’s almost it. The Chicago boys work with the fence-straddling local law enforcement and the fence-straddling local moonshiners to try to bully the Bondurants into paying protection money and giving exclusive access to their hooch, I guess. At the same time, Jack is fitfully becoming a tuff-ish guy, a lover, a bit of a dandy, and along with Cricket, a skilled shine runner with folding money in his pocket.
There are many scenes of extreme violence, all well done. In each scene the Bondurants are being attacked, or waiting to be attacked, or in the process of attacking. But overall it’s a jumble. In one scene, Rakes scores at least twenty probably life-ending punches or kicks (great line – “next time I’ll come down hard.”) to where Jack’s face should look like a mature flounder or a Picasso, but in the next scene Jack has all his teeth, a red eye, and modest red bump on one jaw.
The script is littered with odd dialogue. The almost uncommunicative Howard suddenly spews “are you trying to intimidate me?”; Jack suddenly pipes up about “perspective” and “direction and vision”; a rival moonshiner allows that some things are “beyond the point of forgiveness”. I ain't sure Hank done it this way.
At least 5 different times a scene of violence will end with either Ralph Stanley’s or Emmylou Harris’s voice slowly rising out of the noisy soundtrack to sing one or another mournful song. More surreally, one chase scene will have as its backing music a kind of bluegrass version of The Velvet Underground’s 1968 song, “White Light/White Heat”. Search me. Sometimes “hip” is just another word for “undisciplined”.
There is a final very well staged and kind of entertaining shootout where 30-odd men of shifting alliance point guns at each other, but only about 5 are shooting, and in which the final come-uppance is delivered one-on-one, Hollywood-style. And then a voiced-over coda. The IMDB page links to an excellent and much more concise reader review by one David Ferguson of Dallas, Texas, who concludes, "While entertaining enough, it leaves us with an empty feeling and a hokey shootout finale." Yep.
And then to doubly-drive home the point of just how hip they really are, the filmmakers have Ralph Stanley come back and sing White Light/White Heat yet again as the credits role. As Stan Marsh says, “Aw c’mon.”
1. pronounced "Shia LeBeouf" (apologies to Will Cuppy).
2. Author Bondurant refers to them as German Baptists here.
3. Reviewer Ferguson and I arrived at the whole DeHaan/Dicaprio/Gilbert Grape thing independently. I didn't steal it. Really.
Here's the Velvet's White Light/White Heat. Dr. Ralph left out the lyrics about "I surely do love watching that stuff kick itself in", and "Watch that speed freak, watch that speed freak everybody gonna go and make it every week." I guess that might have represented an anachronism. Pretty good folk song if you leave out the bass solo at the end.
Here's the preview again.