Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Lawless & Brass Knuckle Tactics

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.
There is a part of the film where Forrest has his throat slit by two men and, for awhile, the film lets us believe that Forrest walked twenty miles to the hospital in the snow; we later discover that it was Maggie who, after being raped and beaten, had gotten Forrest into her car and drove him to the hospital. This scenario is how Hillcoat mocks Americans in our thinking of national pride and how "we built that," we "won World War II" and we kept communism from spreading throughout the world. Because the head symbolizes "government" and the rule of government, Forrest having his throat slashed (over the open hood of an automobile, invoking the government sponsored bankruptcy of GM) relates to us the attempt at bad capitalists to destroy the less-worse capitalists (Forrest) and get a new head of government which failed. Please remember that historical films are never ever never ever ever about history, they are always about the here and the now, they are a vehicle for discussing the problems we face today through what has happened to us in the past. Forest thinking he walked twenty miles in the snow with a slit throat is the mirror the film makers hold up to pro-Americans that we think of ourselves and our victories in the same terms, but also illustrates how America the whore (Maggie) drove capitalism (Forrest) to the hospital to recover when we should have let capitalism die.
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.
This gives you an idea of the "jungle" in which the stills are hidden away, but it's an even better representation for what Jack is doing to Bertha, "leading her down the wrong path." There's a truly wonderful scene in the little church (while my research indicates it's supposed to be a Baptist church, their dress and manners invoke the Amish more to the viewer) but without a doubt, Bertha and her family symbolize the religious drive which brought the Puritans and Pilgrims to America seeking religious freedom. It's a well-played argument by Hillcoat when Jack, drunk on his own moonshine he can't stomach, goes to the church seeking out Bertha. When Bertha goes to wash his feet, they are stained with dirt--because the feet symbolize the will and his will is "earthly," hence the dirt of the earth has stained his will--but he won't let Bertha finish because he's drunk. The scene invokes the possibility of Jack's conversion away from the lawless life his brothers and most of the others in Jackson County are leading, and that's the purpose of his shoe being left at the church, there's literally a part of him he leaves there in that community of the righteous, however, he then goes and encounters Rakes who totally beats him up. What's going on? Drunk on the power and easy money the moonshine symbolizes in the film--their product that Americans hungers for (my reference to The Hunger Games)--he tries courting the Church (Bertha) so he has some legitimacy to what he does OR to soil the Church so he doesn't look so bad (hence his giving Bertha the new dress that she knows she can't wear). Hillcoat makes the argument that capitalists like Jack chose the world and lost their soul, and lost the soul of the Church in the bargain, and have intentionally sought out the school of hard knocks he learns from Rakes.
There's a deeper meaning to this as well, for capitalists such as myself: you can't trust a capitalist to take out another capitalist. There was a reference to this in Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, when the vampires (who symbolize capitalists) can't kill each other, "only the living can kill the dead," because only someone who is a socialist--so their philosophy goes--isn't dead to the harmful effects of money and personal property. While Jack finally has to kill the Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) at the end, it's taken him a long time to do it and only because Rakes has all ready killed Cricket (Dane DeHaan) and Jack thinks Forrest has been killed--i.e., Jack's own--then he is able to kill the Special Deputy,... but is that the right thing to do? The tagline for the film, "When the law became corrupt, outlaws became heroes." That's the formula for capitalism because capitalism made the law, the law wanted "to do a little business," and then the captains of industry--Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockefeller--became robber barons (more on this below).
This is the best shot I could find of the "jungle" atmosphere in which the Bondurant brothers' moonshine stills are hid in the hills of Franklin County. As I watched the scene, noticing all the tall and heavy vegetation--mostly dead in appearance--hanging down and making it difficult to see anything, I thought it looks exactly like a jungle and that's not an accident. In this scene, Jack (Shia LaBeouf) has a new car and new clothes and he has just bought that new yellow dress for Betha (Mia Wasikowska) and he's about to take her to see their stills and lead the law directly to them. Earlier in the film, Jack puts on his father's suit (dad is dead) to go courting Bertha (the scene at the feed store) and that literally means that he has "dressed himself" in the "law of the fathers" (the founding fathers) to make himself legitimate to Bertha and her father ("Tell your daddy I said 'hi,'" and he turns to walk away but sees Bertha's father coming towards them so he quickly turns the other way to avoid him). This bit of action isn't accidental nor even a bit of light humor, Jack intentionally turns away from meeting the "elder of the church" because he is bent on his own path on which he later leads Bertha. When Jack comes to pick up Bertha and he's talking, the price tag from his coat is showing--so new he didn't even remove the tag--and Bertha points that out to him. The symbolism of clothing can be very difficult, so please don't think this is the only interpretation of that scene possible, however, it seems to me that the price tag on the coat symbolizes the "price tag on his soul" because Jack sells the moonshine and the takes the dangerous risks solely for money, losing his soul in the process.
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.
Details are always important in art, so we should be asking, what's up with Rakes' hair? The part down the middle is atrocious and before Jack makes the comment that Rakes smells like a woman because of his constant pampering of himself. Hair symbolizes the thoughts, so the way a person styles their hair clues us into how they think (especially if we are used to seeing their hair one way, and it later changes in the film). Rakes' hair is as "divided" as this shoot out scene between the moonshiners (behind him) and the law (in front of him). Because he combs his hair so close to his head, we know that he makes great pains to keep it orderly, and the part is the way, in his mind, that he has divided the outlaws from himself: the Bondurants on one side, and he in his righteousness as the law, on the other side. Just as Rakes' hair looks so bad, so this is an artificial way of thinking about it as Rakes continually breaks the law in the "name of keeping the law."
I'm sure you're saying, "How does this symbolize all capitalists or all businesses?" and you're right to ask that: because of the plethora of advertising in the film. Throughout, one can't help but notice the signs and emblems of major companies such as Ford, Coke, Mobile and others in essence advertising how they are a part of the same type of business deals the Bondurants participate in; there is no such thing as "legitimate business practice" to Hillcoat, it's all corrupt and it's all against the law. But here's a great example of how capitalism doesn't just hurt the country, it hurts the individuals, especially women:
Maggie obviously uses her looks to sway Forrest into getting the position and Forrest's appetites are "exposed" (when he takes his hat off, we can "see" what he's thinking). Also important is, while watching the film, this is really the first time we are informed that this restaurant is the Bondurants' legitimate business that isn't very legitimate. Maggie and Forrest end up sleeping with each other and it shouldn't be a surprise: socialists have become fond of using sex as a metaphor for the way capitalists use the country and their workers (Arbitrage, Savages just off the top of my head) and Maggie's past as a dance hall girl in Chicago means, in the words of Rakes that she's a "greasy cup" from which Forrest is happy to drink.
Tom Hardy as Forrest Bondurant in his room.  Forrest has numerous characteristics, for example, he sleeps on the floor (shown above with the blankets at his feet); why? Sleep has two possible symbols: one, the sleeper is being healed and rejuvenated for an upcoming battle or trial; two, because sleep resembles the eternal sleep of death, the person sleeping is in a state of death (such as Dracula). Since we see Forrest taking the fatal fall into the ice at the end, and learn of his death, it's probably the later symbol we are to understand, that is, Forrest is all ready dead because of the philosophy he advocates in the film and what he symbolizes as both a capitalist and American (more on this below). Being on the floor means that Forrest is the closest to being "laid in the ground" because he's all ready on top of the ground. (This is a good place to discuss Cricket, because Cricket actually dies in the film, however, Cricket isn't really a capitalist, hence the reason for his bad leg, his "childhood crippling" disease was actually admiring people like the Bondurants which mis-directed his will--the legs--and "led him" to death at the hands of Rakes. Cricket is smart but he used his intelligence for a "crooked end" so his leg became crooked). This is one of the reasons Forrest "escapes" death so many times in the film, is being so close to the ground, we know he won't escape death even though he gives the illusion of escaping.
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:
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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.
There's a deeply symbolic moment when Maggie (Jessica Chastain) works in the Bondurant cafe and Forrest, sitting at one of the tables, has put his hat on the table; Maggie walks by and puts it on the chair; Forrest takes his hat and puts it back on the table. A power struggle for which of them  will have their law rule over the cafe? No, it's more potent than that. As Rakes' parted hair symbolizes his thoughts, the hat Forrest constantly wears symbolizes his (the brown symbolizes the dirt we later see on Jack's feet when he is in the church getting his feet washed because Forrest hasn't been "clean" in his business practices. The orange band symbolizes the illusion of the glamorous life his moonshine/outlaw ways creates (orange symbolizes "vibrancy" and life, but please note how it's not a bright orange, but a faded, even dirty orange). While the hat is that of a gentlemen, it's definitely not in good shape with tears and age marks. Just as Forrest sleeping on the floor can also by symbolic of his animal like state (animals sleep on the ground) so his unshaven face can also substantiate that view of him because an unshaven jaw accentuates the animal appetites (men who are civilized shave whereas barbarians let their hair grow; Rakes compares Maggie to a "greasy cup" and Forrest's sleeping with her, i.e., drinking from the greasy cup, means he has taken in her filth along with his own). We see Rakes taking great pains to be clean-shaven and keep his hair clean, but it's with a men's straight shaving razor that Forrest,... slices off the testicles of the men who slit his throat, indicating that "manliness" has nothing to do with "being pretty" and clean like city folks, hence, why they deliver the testicles to Rakes in the jar wrapped in pink paper, the challenge of what makes a man really a man.
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)
This scene provides a great validation regarding the relationship of Forrest and Maggie, if we had any doubts. Forrest has gotten hurt in a fight and Maggie puts iodine/rubbing alcohol on his cut, then blows on it to take out the sting. As we all know, Maggie's blowing on it only spreads the germs the medicine was supposed to kill, so she's not doing any good.  Maggie is juxtaposed against Bertha, the whore vs. the virgin, and Maggie clearly symbolizes what America had become while Bertha was what America had been until capitalism soiled the country (hence why Maggie wears red so often throughout the film,  "the scarlet woman"). A great illustration of this is when Jack has gotten the camera and Bertha talks about the movie stars in LA, something which would clearly not be a topic of conversation appreciated by her father, yet the glamor perpetuated by the movie industry is being targeted as one of the diseases of capitalism which thoroughly corrupted the country.
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.