In Prohibition Era Virginia, in those verdant smoky hills of Franklin County, the bootlegging Bondurant Brothers are the kings of a moonshine ring operating peacefully with the local law enforcement and treated as legends by the townsfolk. Oldest brother Forrest (Tom Hardy) is known for his stoic invincibility (he survived WWI and Spanish influenza), middle brother Howard (Jason Clarke) is a barely functioning drunk who wields quick fists of justice, and youngest sibling Jack (Shia LaBeouf) has been living in their shadows as the kid brother too afraid to take a stand or shoot a gun. When a big-time gangster from Chicago named Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) comes down into the area for business, Jack is in awe and sees it as an opportunity to recast himself as a savvy hot-shot. But with Banner’s big business comes a new ruthless big city lawman, Special Deputy Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce) looking to break-up the Bondurants and their cohorts through any means necessary.
Lawless director John Hillcoat is no stranger to this brand of lawlessness. His blisteringly violent and philosophical Aussie Western The Proposition was one of my favorite films of 2006. He then went on to paint a lawless post-apocalyptic vision in his dour adaptation of the dour novel, The Road. As with The Proposition, Hillcoat re-teams with screenwriter and musician Nick Cave, who adapted the story from Matt Bondurant’s own family history, The Wettest County in the World, while working again on the score with Warren Ellis. Cave and Ellis pepper their work with some great period music and old traditionals that come across as the grim underbelly of the bluegrass sensation that was the soundtrack to The Coen Brothers’ Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Hillcoat, meanwhile, is busy crafting his most commercial film to date, with expert framing, rising tension in crucial scenes, judicious and intense violence and a Noir-Meets-Western aesthetic provided by the superb lighting and photography of Benoit Delhomme.
Lawless is based on a true story, and for all the dirt and blood Hillcoat piles on to make it seem real, at its core the film is a glossy, old-fashioned, star-studded, shoot-em-up genre pic featuring rising talent and veteran character actors who you know look nothing like the real people they are portraying. In the casting, it looses a bit of its authenticity. Hardy is still too bulked-up from his work as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises for this role, and he seems determined in 2012 to play characters you can barely understand who have something horrible happen to them that alters their voice. It’s the kind of nervy, somewhat annoying-somewhat admirable kind of thing big stars like to do to appear method, and Hardy almost pulls it off here, emerging as a soon-to-be A-list player looking to take the spot recently vacated by an aging Russell Crowe. Accidental box-office star Shia LaBeouf does an okay job here, but he still comes across as a cocky, spoiled rich kid play-acting, and he never really fully inhabits the role of Jack while his book-ending voice-overs seem as if he is doing an impersonation of Jason Stackhouse from True Blood reading Stand by Me. He hounds after a preacher’s daughter played by the eternally innocent-looking Mia Wasikowska, who I fear will become typecast in these types of thankless roles. Meanwhile, Gary Oldman is mostly wasted and does his bit in a glorified cameo.
However, there are two head-turning performances in Lawless that took me by surprise. As Forrest’s love interest, red-headed starlet Jessica Chastain makes the most of her clichéd role with her quietly smoldering intensity. Her eyes, her lips, her tears, and her body language would’ve made her a great silent-screen star. And we get to see more of her than we’ve ever seen before in a tasteful love scene. It’s nice to see her in a role like this with some distance from the 500 roles she took on in 2011. She a stone-cold stunner in every sense of the term, and this is a reminder that she’s a star on the rise not to be trifled with.
Then, on the flip side, for some old-fashioned scenery chewing, we get Guy Pearce going bonkers in his role as top villain. His is a decidedly creepy turn playing a man of fine-tailored suits and slick-back hair who pummels people while wearing gloves and pulls out a silk handkerchief to wipe off blood. Hillcoat wantonly turns Pearce lose in the climactic shoot-out, and it’s fun to see an actor go that wild.
The cast is both the strongest and weakest link in the film, and it would’ve been interesting to see how the film would’ve played if Hillcoat had kept it indie and cast with unknowns. For all his usual stylish atmospherics and play with violence, Hillcoat has delivered here for the first time a product. He’s now ensconced in the Hollywood machine, and this film is a bit of a cross-over for him. While I’m not sure yet if he can tame a big cast of egos, he proves now he can handle a rollicking, entertaining genre film while still holding true to some signature elements…but can he do more? Only time will tell if Hillcoat can be a big player or is destined to return to more lawless lands.
Written by David H. Schleicher