A great cast and Nick Cave script save what is otherwise an 'uncomplicated and predictable' prohibition era gangster flick
In 2005 John Hillcoat and Nick Cave collaborated on The Proposition, a Western set in the dirty, fly-speckled Australian outback. The film was a success, putting Hillcoat on the map as a director and giving Cave, primarily known as a singer-songwriter, a second career as screenwriter.
Following Hillcoat’s dark and depressing adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s dark and depressing novel The Road, he and Cave team up once more on Lawless, a film that is lighter and more rollicking than The Proposition, but which has about as much depth and subtlety as a pantomime.
Lawless tackles another quintessentially American phenomenon – the gangster. It is 1920s backwoods Virginia and, despite prohibition, the Bondurant brothers are making money hand over fist bootlegging moonshine for their thirsty fellow statesmen.
Tom Hardy is Forrest, the burly taciturn, eldest. Jason Clarke is Howard, the alcoholic First World War battle-scarred middle brother, and Shia LaBeouf is the callow youngest, Jack. Jack is no good with his fists, but has big ideas about the Bondurant’s business and becoming a fully-fledged gangster like his hero, Floyd Banner (a cameoing Gary Oldman).
Local legend has it that the Bondurant's are invincible. Their enemies chose to test that theory.
It’s a strong cast, even before you throw in Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska as the love interests of the eldest and youngest brothers respectively, and the acting itself is uniformly solid. Hardy commands with his usual presence, Chastain continues to be a magnetic performer and Shia Le Beouf…
Well, Shia Le Beouf is Shia LaBeouf, playing a character much like those he has played previously and in pretty much the same fashion too. He may have physically changed somewhat, having put on the pounds for the role, but despite all the rhetoric in recent interviews, there is no quantum leap here now that LaBeouf has left the robots behind.
If there is a criticism to be had of the cast, it’s that their Southern Fried accents frequently coalesce into mush-mouthed mumblings, with Hardy especially proving that he doesn’t need a mask over his mouth to verge on the incomprehensible.
The one performer to stand above the rest is the one with the meatiest role and, indeed, the actor who appears to be enjoying himself the most. That actor is Australian Guy Pearce, here playing a Special Agent named Charlie Rakes as a preening, perfumed and eyebrowless dandy.
If Lawless is a pantomime then Pearce fills both the boo-hiss bad guy and the panto dame rolls in one. He chews the scenery with gusto, whether he quietly threatening Hardy, openly drooling over Chastain or repeatedly punching LeBeouf in the face. He will win no Oscars for this performance, nor any marks for subtlety, but he’s the main spark to these particular proceedings.
The plot, for all there is to it, is uncomplicated and predictable. The bootlegging idyll of the honour-bound Bondurant brothers is soon shattered when the big-city lawman comes to town. They have to fight back.
And how they fight back – the violence, when it comes, is exceptionally graphic and very bloody. Fans of The Proposition will know what to expect – there are no discrete bullet wounds in the forehead, rather fist-sized craters.
Despite the slim script and lapses into cliché, there is still enough to keep viewers entertained. Thanks to the fine performances, Cave’s energetic soundtrack and Benoit Delhomme’s lush photography, Lawless goes down much smoother than the Bondurant brother’s backwood moonshine appears to.
Lawless runs in Queen's Film Theatre from September 9 - 20.