Last week I had the great pleasure of seeing an advanced screening of Lawless, the latest work from John Hillcoat (The Proposition and The Road) based on the “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant with a script by Nick Cave (Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds / The Proposition)
“I’m a Bondurant. We don’t lay down for nobody”
The film centres on the lives of the Bondurant brothers, Jack (Shia LaBeouf ), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) in the true story of the running of Moonshine during Prohibition America of the late twenties and early 1930’s set in Franklin County, Virginia. The brothers use their cafe as the legal front to their nefarious acts, producing and selling moonshine throughout the county. When they encounter the brutal Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) who demands a cut from all bootleg alcohol produced in Franklin, Forrest refuses threatening to kill Rakes if he returns. Forrest proceeds to convince other bootleggers in the county to resist the demands, however the others give in to Rakes’ brutal regime.
“Whatcha got? A little pea shooter?”
Hillcoat directs the action from a distance and while you are witness to the events of the Bondurant boys, often in graphic detail, you are left feeling like a voyeur, always on the outside looking in and never part of the story. This is most likely down to the central characters, the tough guy (Hardy), the wannabe tough guy (LaBoeuf) and the mute (Clarke – he’s not actually mute he’s just got nothing to say) Hardy chomps his way through as many cigars as he does scenes and makes the legend surrounding his character come to life and LaBoeuf shows that there is life after Transformers in a mature performance showing the versatility required to inherit the title of “the next Tom Hanks”. The mute Clarke (other than some literal howling in the woods), makes up the numbers in the family, and the wonderful Chastain and Oldman continue the theme of “making up the numbers” in non roles. Pearce matches Hardy for the audiences attention with a bombastic, sadistic portrayal of Rakes, a performance that will leave you feeling cold and with an aversion to black shoe polish. The only character you feel anything for is the Rickets suffering Cricket Pane (Dane DeHaan) but this is more out of sympathy for his illness.
“It is not the violence that sets men apart. It is the distance that he is prepared to go”
The violence is frequent and hard to watch, the brutality of the men’s behaviour be-it law enforcement or the bootleggers is graphic and its inclusion is misplaced. The lingering nature of the violence only widens the gap between the audience and the actor. Sympathy for the protagonists could have been made possible with the absence of the actual act of violence, leaving only the result of it. The film feels confused. A wonderful cast, with a wonderfully mature performance from LaBeouf, Hardy cementing his credentials as a leading man and loathsome Guy Pearce, are at odds with underdeveloped characters (namely Chastain and Oldman) The violent action would make Rambo blush and is juxtaposed with beautifully shot locations and sweeping vistas that would be the envy of Terrence Malick, however the film feels unsure of what it wants to be.
In a film with an inherit religious nature with themes of morality and transgression, the end result is a feeling of agnosticism. Perhaps the genius of Hillcoat is that he has created a flawed masterpiece, much like life itself.
Rating: 3 / 5
words by david rushe