Brothers. Gangsters. Heroes.
Set during the prohibition era, Lawless is the largely true story of three bootlegging brothers, Howard [Clarke], Forrest [Hardy] and Jack Bondurant [LaBeouf]. The first two are hardened survivors and deal with the production and distribution of illegal liquor, while Jack is considered significantly more delicate than his siblings and is restricted to simply driving the family jalopy. Whenever he finds himself in a compromising position, Jack reacts as most people would, he panics and trembles with fear; for this reason any attempt to get in on the family business is quickly batted away by the patriarchal Forrest. The simple country life of bootlegging is quickly upset by three key events, all of which take place around the same time. Firstly, Jack witnesses big city mobster, Floyd Banner [Oldman] keenly and calmly executing ATU officers in the middle of the street before walking back to his car and driving off. This event inspires Jack, who is attempting to brew his own moonshine with the help of the young Cricket Pane [Dane DeHaan]. Second is the arrival of Maggie Beauford [Chastain], a dancer from Chicago, who has cut-out from the city and is looking for a quiet country life. Finally, the bootleggers of Franklin County are visited by the Sheriff (who had been allowing them to operate) who introduces Special Agent Charlie Rakes [Pearce], also from Chicago. Rakes is a repugnant, egotistical and truly vicious character who is evidently more twisted and corrupt than the criminals. Rakes employs increasingly brutal methods of intimidation to break the bootleggers and soon, only the Bondurants remain. Running parallel to all this is Jack’s growing boldness as he openly makes a deal to trade with Floyd Banner and chases after a stern preacher’s daughter, Bertha Minnix [Wasikowska].
I don’t mind telling you right from the get-go that this review is going to be heavily biased. Prohibition era United States is one of my favourite points in time and to my mind, neither John Hillcoat or Nick Cave can put a foot wrong. Essentially, this is exactly my kind of film: long rolling shots, nerve shattering violence, keen dialogue, acting with immense visceral rawness, an immersive score, complex characters, troubled familial interactions, sly carefully used humour and gorgeous set production. Of Hillcoat’s films to date, this definitely has the most mainstream approachability. Arguably anyone could watch The Proposition or The Road but the nature of their pacing, subject matter and presentation have a deeply independent feel to them – don’t mistake me, that’s in no way an insult – and as such only a specific demographic would seek them out. Lawless on the other hand has a relatively epic feel. Despite the contained plot and tightly knit core group of characters, it still manages to feel vast in its scope and scale. A key factor to this could easily be Nick Cave’s adapted screenplay, which happily shies away from the violence and the drama in the cities and focuses on the personal relationships of those at the poorer end of the scale. The script is also littered with signature traits and scenarios that often appear in Cave’s work – see my highlighted scene below for a further explanation.
Following the rise and fall of the gangster narrative framing, the editing and pace mirror Jack’s story. So, the audience is drawn in and lulled by the beautiful cinematography, distinctive characters and lush production value before violence descends swiftly and without warning, taking you completely by surprise. Furthermore, despite the excruciating nature of the attacks and executions, they’re moderately tame by contemporary standards – much in the same way that so much press was generated about Reservoir Dogs even though you don’t ‘see’ a great deal in the infamous torture scene. The thing that really sells the urgency and horror of the violent encounters are the actors. Everyone plays their roles well and even relatively two dimensional characters whose back-stories aren’t really explored are captivating enough that you can overlook any flaws. Despite everyone being on form, the three standout performances come from Hardy, Pearce and surprisingly LaBeouf. Tom Hardy is a powerhouse of acting talent and embodies the grumpy, bitter and world weary Forrest whilst bringing so much more to the character with expert subtlety and distinctly croaky monosyllabic diction. Guy Pearce as Rakes is wonderfully unpleasant. I have no idea if Pearce has lost his eyebrows after all that make-up in Transformers LaBeouf. When he first turned up, he reminded me of that Savage kid from Boy Meets World and showed great potential. Then he flopped around on screen, screaming OPTIMUS! for a few years and everyone started to hate him.. understandably. Strangely enough, he’s actually a very talented individual in his own right and his energy and commitment to a role is evident. This will either mark a turning point for him or alternatively the only decent thing he’ll ever work on. Only time will tell.
With its raw soundtrack (fans of traditional bluegrass music will know what I’m talking about), praiseworthy performances and thrilling story, Lawless has everything I could want in a film. It lacks that golden quality that releases such as The Untouchables and Boardwalk Empire possess but it’s still a superb notch in Hillcoat’s belt and a reminder that Nick Cave is making an equally substantial contribution to cinema, as he has the music industry.
7th September 2012
The Scene To Look Out For:
A singular scene that clearly stuck out for me was one that was so very ‘Nick Cave’. In the process of courting Bertha Minnix, Jack gets drunk and attends her father’s church service. Sitting bedraggled in the front row, the combination of anxiety, alcohol, resonant singing and having his feet washed by a hesitant Bertha take hold of Jack and all he can do to save himself from throwing up or passing out is to jettison himself from the building, sprinting through the fields, minus one shoe.
As I’ve already discussed Hardy, Pearce and La Beouf, let’s talk about Gary Oldman. His role is so very minor that it could easily be considered a cameo and yet the impact he makes, has me hoping and praying for a Floyd Banner spin-off (though I’m fully aware how unnecessary that is). His presence, poise and ability to exude authority is compelling and it’s just a shame we couldn’t see more. Almost as if we had a brief glimpse of De Niro as Capone in The Untouchables but then he’s absent for the rest of the film.
“It’s not the violence that sets a man apart, it’s the distance that he is prepared to go”
In A Few Words:
“A fine addition to Hillcoat’s already sterling curriculum vitae – wonderful performances, spectacular production, a visual marvel and a thoroughly enthralling tale”