Lawless Review By Adam
After receiving little admiration for successfully tackling the (arguably) best novel of the last decade — Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — Australian director John Hillcoat returns to what he knows best — violent crime cinema — with his new film Lawless. Featuring a phenomenal cast, immaculate period detail and a gamut of gut-wrenching violence, Lawless sees Hillcoat heading into slightly more mainstream territory: the realisation of the American dream. It might not be the masterpiece it easily could have been, but Lawless is a damn fine addition to the crime cinema cannon.
Set in 1931 and based on the historical novel The Wettest County in the World (2008) written by the protagonist’s grandson, Matt Bondurant, Lawless is the story of Jack Bondurant (Shia Labeouf), a young bootlegger who runs a moonshine operation out of Franklin County, Virginia, with his brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke). The Bondurants have a booming business and the respect of the local community, but when gangsters from Chicago show up wanting a slice of the action — represented by the ghoulish Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) — the headstrong Forrest takes a serious exception. Forrest’s refusal to bow down leads the Bondurants on a collision course with the unstable Rakes, and as a result, Franklin County becomes a body-strewn battlefield where no one — guilty or innocent — is safe.
Director John Hillcoat is one of the most idiosyncratic filmmakers working, not just from Australia, but in the world at large. Two things make Hillcoat’s work unique: primarily, his films are startlingly, unflinchingly bleak (it was no accident that he was on the shortlist for The Road) and he has an ability to capture violence in a way that breaks through a century of cinematic desensitisation – when someone gets hurt in a John Hillcoat film you feel it. Reteaming with The Proposition screenwriter (and all-round rock god) Nick Cave, Lawless sees Hillcoat softening his fatalism to a degree but his penchant for violence remains completely intact. But what we are left with is a tonally inconsistent film – one scene will gently capture the nervous uncertainty of young love and then the next will have a man having his balls cut off. Literally.
While it is the content that makes Hillcoat’s work idiosyncratic, the opposite can be said for his visual style. Hillcoat — with the help of talented cinematographer Benoît Delhomme — shoots in a languid, utterly classical way. Lawless contains a bare minimum of modern film trickery, and it would seem that Hillcoat — unlike Sherlock Holmes’ Guy Ritchie — is repulsed by the idea of breaking his time period illusion simply to gain some style; and with the level of detail in this film utterly breathtaking, what an illusion it is! From Margot Wilson’s rustic costumes to Chris Kennedy’s elaborate production design, every element of Lawless feels authentic and lived-in. Unlike the majority of gangster films, Lawless has the distinction of being visually luminous. Most films dealing with nefarious actions are often as murky as their characters’ moralities and Lawless‘s non-aversion to sunlight is a welcome and unique aesthetic change from the norm.
From its earliest inception, Lawless — the film originally retained the novel’s Wettest County title — attracted serious acting talent. Michael Shannon, Ryan Gosling, Amy Adams and Scarlett Johansson all joined and subsequently dropped out of this film during its preproduction, but this has more to do with delayed financing rather than a tumultuous production. In fact, except for the constant involvement of Shia LaBeouf, Lawless‘s cast underwent entire changes. With this kind of instability, it is a miracle that Hillcoat finally ended up with one of the year’s strongest ensembles. Shia LaBeouf makes for a convincing, if not perfect, protagonist in Jack Bondurant. Jack is an equal mixture of arrogance, ineptitude and blind ambition and though he may not seem like a likely choice to headline a John Hillcoat film, these are qualities that seem entrenched in LaBeouf and he is, ultimately, well-cast. Jason Clarke has the least developed of the brothers in Howard but he makes the character’s alcoholic barbarism somehow endearing and maximises his limited screen time. Except for Guy Pearce (who I shall get to shortly) Lawless’‘s strongest work belongs to Tom Hardy. Unless you have been living under a rock, you will have witnessed the 35-year old wunderkind in action. A physical actor par excellence, Hardy has an astonishing physicality. Hardy’s Forrest Bondurant communicates almost exclusively in a series of primal grunts (and knuckle-duster assisted blows to the face) but Hardy manages to convey a pervasive sensitivity under Forrest’s rigid exterior; it is a master class in acting with the eyes.
Jessica Chastain, Gary Oldman and Mia Wasikowska are all hugely talented performers, but unfortunately Nick Cave’s script doesn’t give them the same level of development as the Bondurants. It is obvious that Chastain’s Maggie has tragedy in her past, but her history is often merely alluded too though exposition; it doesn’t feel like a natural extension of the screenplay and instead feels tacked-on to appease a talent of Chastain’s calibre. Oldman’s tommy gun introduction is stellar, but unfortunately it is the peak of what is a completely peripheral, underused character. Wasikowska aptly captures the innocence of her devout character, but her romance with LeBeouf often struggles to gain traction.
The last few years have been somewhat of a resurgence for Guy Pearce. Eschewing his leading man status, he has (seemingly) chosen parts based on character and not screen time, and often the results of these brave choices have been indelible (The Hurt Locker, The Road). Lawless offers Pearce at his most extroverted. His Special Agent Charley Rakes is a fearsome, reptilian creation and when the book is closed on 2012, Mr Rakes might just be the year’s most memorable villain. With his drastic undercut, drag queen accent and non-existent eyebrows, Rakes is a huge creative gamble, but one that Pearce wholeheartedly commits to. From his sexual proclivities to his choice in driving gloves, Pearce knows Rakes inside-out and the results are electrifying. This highwire act might not be to everyone’s taste but I giggled in giddy excitement every time Pearce waltzed onscreen.
While many of the individual elements of this production are beyond reproach there is definitely something slightly off in their cohesion. Hillcoat and Cave’s refusal to tone down the violence is admirable (they both claim that they did, and if that is so, then Wettest County must be borderline pornographic), but it rubs against the film’s more optimistic scenes. It worked flawlessly in The Proposition because that film had zero intention of playing nice – but Lawless wants to have its cake and to eat it too. My biggest gripe with Lawless is that it doesn’t quite grasp the greatness that is easily within its reach, but all in all, that is a minor quibble. If you’re a fan of HBO’s masterpiece Boardwalk Empire or violent crime cinema in general (who isn’t?), I highly recommend you chug this fiery brew down. It’s got a kick.