Virginia is a battleground state. We're not talking presidential politics here- although if words could kill, we'd have a couple of corpses on the ground by now.
No, we're talking Virginia in 1931 during the Great Depression, when prohibition was the law of the land and a band of bootlegging brothers ran what might now be called a small family business. That's the premise of "Lawless," a cinematic hillbilly epic reminiscent of the classic "Bonnie and Clyde," in both its lyricism and its violence.
Fresh from showing at the Cannes Film Festival where it was greeted with both applause and boos, it stars Shia LeBeouf, adding box-office clout to a cast of great actors including Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pierce, Mia Wasikowska and Gary Oldman. With their international origins, and the strong Australian accent extending to director John Hillcoat and screenwriter/composer Nick Cave, what's surprising is just how Ameri'kun "Lawless" feels.
It's not just a matter of the vintage cars, the metal Grapette advertising signs on the weathered clapboard walls or the "colored" signs over certain public drinking fountains. It's more atmospheric, the way the sunlight hits the hillsides or the sawing song of cicadas in humid forest nights lit by the fires of moonshiners' stills.
Revolving around a trio of Bonderant brothers (played by Hardy, LeBeouf and Jason Clarke), the film's title sets the tone- silently echoing Bob Dylan's lyric, "to live outside the law, you must be honest."
Having a code of honor is more to the point, especially after the Bonderants find themselves on the wrong side of local law enforcement, which is on the organized crime payroll and brings in a sadistic, city-slicker enforcer (Pierce) to extort a "tax" on the local goods.
As signaled by the opening titles whose letters go from white to red as the film begins, what would become known in local lore as the Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy was a bloody business. Unlike recent trends in videogame-inspired movies where violence is sanitized, the victims here bleed often in ways that are hard to watch onscreen.
Not being a big fan of gratuitous screen violence or cinematic overkill (I'd much rather see movies about random acts of kindness, if such movies actually ever got made), the question remains days after seeing "Lawless," why I enjoyed it so much.
Well, there are some magnetic performances, led by Hardy who mostly grunts his lines; Pierce who's fascinatingly creepy; and Chastain, who's just fascinating, period. And there's that great foggy mountain scenery, and a music score almost as good as "O Brother Where Art Thou's."
But while the film's costumes and settings invite inevitable comparisons to 1967's game-changing "Bonnie and Clyde" - right down to certain scenes almost lifted from the earlier film - what the two movies really share is the conviction that under certain circumstances, "lawless" is another word for honor or integrity.
Obviously, this is a dangerous concept - a moral tightrope without a net over a pit of political incorrectness and vigilante rule. But if the good guys are the ones walking the line - like, say, Robin Hood or Liam Neeson in the upcoming "Taken 2" - it produces visceral feelings of great satisfaction.
At the other end of the spectrum - men at their best - France's "The Intouchables" is a rare delight. Winner of that country's equivalent of the best picture Oscar (over "The Artist," the French production that won in the U.S.), it features the most unique and endearing odd couple in recent screen history.
Francois Cluzet is Phillippe, the wealthy quadriplegic who needs constant, hands-on attention in his Parisian mansion. Omar Sy is Driss, the street hustling petty criminal he unaccountably hires for the job.
The relationship that develops between the two is constantly surprising - from the crackling, clever barbs of their first exchange through lots of laugh-out-loud moments to a fragile but abiding trust.
Each performance is nuanced and compelling, as the writing-directing team of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano find ingenious ways of breaking out of the story's obvious physical constraints with a couple of thrilling action segments.
Phillippe's reason for hiring Driss in the first place is because of the aide's absolute absence of pity for him. The film achieves something comparable for the audience, breaking molds and stereotypes as the pair get in touch with some of the best sides of this messy business of being human.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com