The recently-released “Lawless” is a surprisingly violent western (quite an accomplishment in this desensitized world). It’s well-written, well-acted and well-executed. The movie is as strong as a movie can be that stars Shia LaBouf, and the filmmaker, John Hillcoat, is impressively competent – except, of course, for his decision to cast Shia LaBouf.
But, no, this blog post is not about how overrated Shia LaBouf is an actor (If you’d like such a post please let me know). This post is about an age-old and effective plot device used by filmmakers and, by extension, the strikingly villainous portrait of “Lawless’s” villain - FBI Special Agent Charlie Rakes (played by Guy Pearce).
The age-old and effective plot device referenced in the previous sentence refers to switching the moral nature of good guys and bad guys. Think about the following question for a second: When was the last time you watched an outlaw movie and didn’t root for the outlaws? I can’t remember either. “Lawless” is no exception as we spend the entire movie rooting for the boot-legging Bondurant Brothers without a moment of hesitation or self-doubt.
(Shia LaBouf plays the youthful and sensitive Jack, Tom Hardy plays the wise and legendary Forrest and Jason Clark plays the loose-cannon Howard)
Let me repeat - I rooted for the bad guy-Bondurant Brothers, and I did so enthusiastically and with my moral compass intact.
How could this be? The answer is fairly simple - when writing and directing “Lawless” Hillcoat kept an eye on the spectrum of morality and likability, and was careful to place the “bad guys (Bondurant Brothers)” on the Heroic end and the “good guys (Rakes)” on the polar opposite end.
When watching “Lawless” it quickly, readily and consistently becomes clear that the Bondurant brothers are decent-hearted, hard-working and (relatively) morally sound folks just trying to adapt to a challenging and chilling environment. Further, the “law,” whose implicit job it is to ruin the world our heroic protagonists have constructed, are portrayed as amoral and unlikable.
This plot device rests on the premise that the "good guy" will act very very badly. And now we arrive at this blog post's main issue - the most striking and, to me, the most entertaining element of “Lawless” is the character of Rakes, and the unique, creative way in which his villainy is formulated and maximized.
In the film's setup, before Rakes has had a chance to do much of anything he’s achieved a fairly potent level of villainy. In his introductory scene we learn he's there to catch and imprison our beloved bootlegger protagonists. We start to hate him. He gives a few of the females dirty looks that makes everyone, including the audience, a little squeamish. Now, we're ready to definitely hate him. Hell, within no time, even the local police are declaring, “I don’ much like this guy!”
In this post I’m going to dig deeper and go beyond some of the more predictable and easily identifiable flags of villainy to examine the nuanced way in which Rakes both feels real (avoids becoming a stereotype or caricature) and becomes one of the memorable and disturbing villains to hit the silver screen in recent memory.
So, how is this achieved? Allow me to count the ways…
A Mask of Civility
Imagine that an individual harbors truly dark urges to cause suffering. He’s smart enough to realize that society won’t just let him engage in such murderous activities so he needs to figure out how to “hide” his true intentions and create a false persona that allows him to operate with impunity. A horribly corrupt cop is one of the likely manifestations of such a dark, deceitful trajectory. It allows one to engage in sadistic urges while operating above and beyond the safeguards of society. This idea of ‘sadism’ wrapped in a protective blanket of power is heightened by the character of Rakes. He’s the Special Agent in charge. There’s nobody watching over his shoulder. He has free reign to do whatever he wants.
And we can understand how he came into such a position of unquestioned authority because he’s an expert at wearing a mask of civility.
When we first meet him we see just how perfectly he’s made up his “mask.” He’s dressed in a well-tailored suit. Every move is well-mannered. Every word is spoken with erudite eloquence. A vibe starts to ooze out from between his mannerisms almost immediately. It’s not entirely clear what it is at first, but it’s worse than snobbery. Later, of course, we see that it’s sadism. He engages in a number of sadistic actions that I’ll touch upon throughout the blog and he does so while literally slicking his hair back into place and smoothing out the ruffles in his fine silk attire. It is in this fashion that Rakes not only expresses vanity and superficiality but also creates a self-presentation of law and order that hides the truth that he is the most evil man in the room.
Interestingly, his mask of civility is physically manifested in an appropriate way. For this role Pearce has transformed himself from one of the better looking Hollywood stars into some sort of cross between a mannequin and a monstrous albino. His skin is pale and stretched tight; his eyes perpetually bloodshot. He parts his hair strangely down the middle, and makes gut-shot hyena noises when he laughs. These little physical touches exude something utterly animalistic. Clearly this film is interested in the idea that primitive, animalistic instincts for self-preservation and brutality resides at the core of our psyche. But whereas the Bondurant Brothers “own up to” and “curb” their primal responses (choosing only to lash out in violence for self-preservation in the face of obvious threats), Rakes falsely hides his transparently suppressed animalism until it explodes outward in a tidal wave of excessive violence.
Please continue to Part II for a seamless continuation of the analysis....