Mythic Folk Heroes have returned to our cinema screens in Lawless, starring Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf as siblings running a bootlegging operation in Prohibition-era Virginia. The tagline concisely outlines who we’re supposed to root for: ‘When the law became corrupt, outlaws became heroes’. Which is a more poetic way of saying ‘Yes, yes, okay, so they’re breaking the law and are basically criminals, but have you seen the guys in charge? They’re, like, a lot worse!’
Rooting for the criminals becomes a lot easier when they’re facing the boo-hiss corruption of lawmen looking for a slice of the action. And, presumably, having the rugged good looks of Tom Hardy and the movie star sheen of Shia ‘Alien Robot Movie’ LaBeouf is also handy in denoting ‘Hero’.
The Law has faced an uphill struggle winning the affections of Joe Cinema Goer in recent years. It’s fashionable to see cinematic lawmen as The Man somehow epitomising everything that’s ever been wrong with society, the suggestion being that we’d all be better off, looser and cooler to each other if we weren’t being constantly kept in order by men in uniform with guns.
Michael Mann’s Depression-era Public Enemies was a more layered and superior offering than Lawless, but takes a similar approach to cop and criminal. Christian Bale was in charge of turning a ragtag band of semi-competent police officers into an elite crime-fighting force that became the FBI. Their task was to bring down Mythic Bank Robber John Dillinger, but when Dillinger’s played by Johnny Depp you have to ask where our sympathies are meant to lie.
Dillinger is the ultimate Mythic Folk Hero. He’s on a par with Robin Hood, only he actually existed. He’s free-spirited, sexy and (apparently) a little bit noble too. Justice Overlord J Edgar Hoover is the one doing the scheming, pulling cynical PR stunts and (probably) unleashing maniacal laughter as he tries to figure out how to pin down the charismatic outlaw and murder him in the face.
Of course the number of true Mythic Folk Heroes is in relatively short supply, but this doesn’t mean that The Revolutionary Powers That Be can’t carry out a recruitment drive to find the right man for the job. Perhaps a piece of parchment nailed to a tree with an ornate dagger:
“We’re seeking a new Mythic Hero! You must be good-looking but in a scruffy kind of way. Avoid sharp dressing at first – it’s the get-up of The Man! You need to be a real salt-of-the-earth type, with a great understanding of hard labour and what it means to be exploited. Past experience in a really gritty line of work, like being a blacksmith or surviving a lengthy spell in a chain gang, would be really terrific, although ideally you’ll need to be freakishly good with weapons too.
“You must be willing to use violence to get your way – and often as a first resort – but no need to worry about much in the way of moral conflict. Your victims will be either anonymous henchmen who’ll be killed bloodlessly, or they’ll really, really deserve it, in which case a bit of cathartic ultra-violence is given a free pass. Careful diplomatic sit-downs won’t be the order of the day, mainly because the lawmen you’ll be up against are so absolutely corrupt and probably have the skinny, pencil-moustache to prove it. To really show their evil villainy they may cancel Christmas.
“Your mere presence will command the respect of the Common Man who’ll want to be you. The Common Woman will tend to your wounds and help reveal that beneath the muscular gym-toned brawn there’s a kind and gentle soul who just happens to have broken a lot of skulls with his bare hands. Or at least she’ll give you a bit of a snog.
“So, if you feel contempt for organised law enforcement and feel that the people really need their corner fought through theft, aggravated assault and a slew of firearms offences, we want to hear from you!
“Peace Out! The Revolutionary Powers That Be!”