Shia LaBeouf Gets Gatted

I have to give it to the Lawless redband trailer that came out this week. Heck, I have to stick a gold star on the work of the whole marketing team. They know how to ride a trend and ride it well.

The Lawless red band is woven from glimpses of every buzzing theme in American crime film these days.

Give a look. Then we’ll make like Highlights Magazine and circle the animals we see.

Of course, the mainstays of modern R-rated USA action film present themselves. I refer to the “Three T’s”: Torture. Tits. Tommy guns. If an action genre installment is to earn its Family Unsafe rating, it needs to show some skin, slash up helpless victims, and get its gun on in a major way.

Check, check, check – Lawless has those all, seemingly as gratuitous as can be.

But it’s the trends at the substance of the story, not on its flesh-soaked surface, that concern us. This is a high-minded rag after all.

Three of those trends are evident. And it’s here that Lawless clicks with the zeitgeist. The narrative hits the commercial big leagues by featuring “rural folk,” old-timey crime, and all-star actors.

The first theme should be familiar with even the most passing glance at American schadenfreude. Down-home, country miscreants are definitely the train wreck du jour.

Chalk it up to fear of the Tea Party, a growing cultural divide, or fascination with the commonality of American poverty, but America’s dark curiosity is aimed squarely at the backwoods. Authors like Ben Whitmer, Frank Bill, Donald Ray Pollock, Daniel Woodrell and Chris Offutt enjoy a critical embrace of their “Country Noir.” Films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Killer Joe are slaying the big-screen, small-circuit art houses, just like the adaptation of Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone did a couple of years ago. Reality TV is rife with weird country subculture, such as Swamp People, Small Town Security, and Honey Boo Boo, just to rattle off a few in shorthand.

As I say, we can all theorize why this is. My guess is that’s a combination of all of the above, but especially culture clash. The coasts call the shots when it comes to the media, and by obsessing over the odder habits of Flyover Country, they strike a happy commercial balance: They champion the heartland while still using it for amusement, prurient and otherwise.

Whatever the cause, Lawless has it in spades. Focused on a larger-than-life era of bootlegging, it delivers mountain-folk outlaws in concentrated form. Based on the historical novel, The Wettest County in the World, Lawless portrays backwoods Virginia at its most infamous.

So, country noir, check.

There’s also a crucial element of nostalgia that strikes the current wistful chord in crime media. Much as we like modern ills, there’s a cinematic fascination with the past that’s back on the rise. This is especially the case among the critical community. We can see it with Public Enemies a few years back, but most significantly in Boardwalk Empire.

Just like when we were living high on the hog and low in spiritual fulfillment back in the ’90s, and idolized the Greatest Generation, America is now keen to feature its criminals in fedoras. It could be escapism and it could be a wish to see our culture when its worst was at its greatest, but slick old-school villains are the critical rage. Check out the upcoming LA Noir series from Frank Darabont as continuing evidence of this trend.

Lawless takes its gambit for gold statues a step further, by taking full advantage of high-profile actors’ flush interest in crime projects. Top-tier onscreen talent is seeking roles with a felony record. And that’s a trend we can definitely get behind.

I’d posit that this began with Drive. Ryan Gosling may not have carried away an Oscar, but laurels for his performance as the Kid in Drive were not in short supply. It clued in actors to the upswing in a pattern that’s as old as Bogart and Cagney: Crime does pay, at times.

Now we see Matthew McConaughey teaming up with a Pulitizer-winning playwright for Killer Joe, even at the risk of damaging his career with an NC-17 rating. Channing Tatum is doing the same alongside Soderbergh. And, as in the case of Lawless, if you see Tom Hardy in a film these days, chances are good that he’s playing a psychopathic heavy.

Hardy features in Lawless alongside Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain and a fistful of other significant names. As he’s been doing since Bronson, he chews up scenery in a major way. No doubt he’ll get a hearty pat on the back from Hollywood’s reviewers.

For those of you who rightly point out that plenty of great actors have portrayed bad guys, I’ll note that my point isn’t that this has never happened before. I remember Scarface as well as anyone else. My point is that it’s happening again, with crime plots letting smaller circulation films get a big critical boost when paired with a marquee-worthy name.

If my money’s right and my theory above is sound, we’ll see this trend continue all the way through The Great Recession. Just like old-school noir first made a big splash around the time of the Depression and World War II, Americans will keep seeking an outlet for their collective bummer.

Lawless just happens to be the latest channel. Stay tuned for a succession of more, at least until we all get as cash-strapped as the Walmart economy aims to make us.