The more I have thought on John Hillcoat's Lawless, the more I realize how deeply his anti-capitalism venom is meant to go into the American soul. I still uphold that it is a fabulously made film, flawless in that every scene is perfectly executed, leaving nothing to desire; however, it is extremely anti-capitalist and anti-American (I am considering the two to be different attacks but Lawless attacks both, separate as they are). Hillcoat's brilliant film doesn't need the Obama administration to make his case for socialism over capitalism, but he does have to re-write history to achieve his statement, a practice the makers of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter are familiar with.
All great art invokes other great works of art, and the opening scene with young Jack having to shoot a pig invokes George Orwell's 1945 novel Animal Farm while the re-located moonshine stills later in the film summons Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle. Orwell was a democratic socialist, but he hated what the Soviet Union had done and, in response, wrote the story of animals overtaking the farm after the farmer continually mis-treated them. It's the pigs in the story who symbolize the bad socialists, Lenin, Marx, Stalin, and who end up turning into the very thing they sought to overthrow: capitalists. Hillcoat and the makers of Lawless, however, invert Animal Farm and they do it in the opening shot when young Jack can't bring himself to shoot a pig; why? Jack can't shoot the pig because the pig is his very self. Pigs usually symbolize the appetites and no one in the film has a greater appetite than Jack who hungers for glory, cars, clothes and love yet it's not just Jack, but all capitalists the pig symbolizes and, ultimately, every character in the film is a pig to one degree or another and they all have to be shot.
The lesser known novel Lawless invokes, The Jungle, was written by Sinclair to expose the poor working conditions for immigrants at the turn of the century as he worked under cover in a meatpacking plant in Chicago (which is where several of the characters in Lawless are from) but is mostly remembered today for the unsanitary conditions in the factories and food plants the novel exposes; one publisher refused to have anything to do with the book saying, "One feels that what is at the bottom of his (Upton Sinclair's) fierceness is not nearly so much desire to help the poor as hatred of the rich." We can say the same of John Hillcoat and he uses the scenery to greatest effect.
When we first meet Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), he doesn't say much, he doesn't need to; as the brothers drop off their deliveries of moonshine to their customers, they go to a wake and Forrest tells younger brother Jack to wait with the car; when Forrest comes back, Jack is being held up and Forrest takes out his "brass knuckles" and punches the guy in the throat, probably killing him (and Forrest uses them at other times in the film). Why does this happen? It's probably a reference to "brass knuckle tactics," when someone uses intimidation to get their way over someone else, especially in business, and that's what the film is about: every business is illegal because of the means it uses to conduct business and because the law is so closely connected to business, the law is illegal as well,... here are two clips from the film where both sides demonstrate their use of "brass knuckle tactics" to get what they want, regardless of whether or not it's legal:
In this clip, Rakes who plays Special Deputy from Chicago, is wanting to get the Bondurants to join in with the law's mafia-style protection of the moonshine business in Franklin but Forrest wants to remain alone and do things the way they have "always been done," so the local sheriff clues in the city boy on who Forrest really is:
What do these two clips really mean?
In the beginning of the film, Jack talks about how Forrest had been in The Great War, World War I (because World War II still hadn't happened yet) and it was from Forrest's experience in WWI that he decided he was invincible and immortal, that nothing could kill them. This is Hillcoat's mockery of the American sentiment that is pro-America, that love of America that we can do anything and we can persevere (that is, if the government stays out of our way and doesn't keep tripping us up) it's also the re-writing of American history. World War II, as long time readers know, was the defining moment of glory for America and a moment which film makers have repeatedly been invoking this last year (we'll see more of this in my post on Expendables 2) but Hillcoat, by only invoking WWI, basically says that what happened to America in World War II didn't happen, we never became a superpower, only super outlaws, super gangsters.
Because the law never brings the Bondurants to justice, the film has to tell us what happens to them. When Prohibition is repealed, they turn to legitimate means of business, all three brothers living with their families under one roof (socialism, no private property) yet the imperative point is what happens to the invincible Forrest: he goes out to the river, starts dancing and falls through the ice. Where have we seen someone falling through the ice recently? The Dark Knight Rises, when Nolan employs the metaphor as a means of talking about the risks of capitalism (one person taking a risk means they fall through the ice and drown, however, when several go out on the ice and spread the risk--disperse their weight evenly on the ice) the ice holds and they can move forward. Forrest falling through and catching death from pneumonia reminds us of the comatose wife/mother Elizabeth in The Descendants when, as a symbol of capitalism in the boat race, she goes brain dead. For socialists, the economic problems of 2008 aren't a mere phase or cycle of capitalism, rather, a death sentence that the American economy is dead and so is America as a "super power" (both Resident Evil and Expendables debate this issue directly)
How, if at all, does President Obama play into the film's scheme?
He doesn't, really, rather like Wes Anderson's thesis in Moonrise Kingdom that socialism has taken root and has a future in America beyond what does or does not happen with Obama, Lawless utilizes black people throughout the film to show the "black vote" or "black population" "getting in bed with" or being "seduced by" forces that don't have their best interest in mind, yet it's the "sending off" at the start of the film for the dead black husband which probably symbolizes Obama: he's died and is being sent off, symbolically meaning that he's not going to get re-elected, but he doesn't have to because the socialism he has brought to America will necessarily become the law of the land because the law we have now has been corrupted by capitalism and capitalism will "fall through its own ice" and bring an end to itself.
Lastly, I would like to discuss Cricket briefly (you might remember DeHaan from his fabulous performance in Chronicle) with this clip:
Cricket is the brains to Jack's vision (greed and materialism) but is treated terribly by everyone until his death and then all remember him fondly. Because Cricket is the one who "invents" and makes their products better, he's the one who "fuels" the capitalist vision for ever-enhanced and better products, in other words, the American inventiveness that has given the world so many incredible and life-changing products and technologies. Hillcoat's making a cripple of Cricket--as they call him in the film--is, again, because (according to the film makers) his will to be a capitalist is "crooked" and "bent" so his leg is crooked and bent. This critique of capitalism is also found in The Apparition which attacks Thomas Edison's invention of the light bulb and the American power grid (on the other hand, there is a new TV mini series called Revolution about "turning the power back on," and this is clearly a political agenda about getting America "up and running" again).
|The film's final shoot-out between the moonshiners and the law when Jack finally kills Rakes.|
Ultimately, the film goes to great lengths to make us despise the cowardly "runt of the litter" Jack because the film wants us to know that, if we are capitalists (like myself), we are Jack, failing to shoot the pigs and bullies who beat us up and exploit us because of the material comfort we gain from the lawless system of business and private enterprise (socialists just want to know why we don't shoot the upper-class because they don't care about us at all). Again, the film is excellent and perfectly acted; I would be shocked if at least one Oscar nomination doesn't come to the film for the cast or the technical work because it is all done so very well, however, it is also a film which leaves out the very best of capitalism and, as all the others do, fails to show us a positive image of why we should embrace socialism and how socialism will eradicate the ills of which capitalism is accused.