Lawless – film review

Directed by John Hillcoat
Released 31 August 2012 

We take a look at the new film from John Hillcoat and Nick Cave, full of raw energy, sardonic humour and based on a true story. 

Given a somewhat overall dismissive critical reception at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, John Hillcoat’s thrilling, ultra-violent, Prohibition-era rural gangster picture/western Lawless, featuring a script by Nick ”ËœBad Seed’ Cave, will surely thrill aficionados of Boardwalk Empire and classic mob pictures in general.

The equal of Hillcoat’s and Cave’s previous illustrious collaborations ”“ prison drama Ghosts Of The Civil Dead (1988), Australian western The Proposition (2005) and the Cormack McCarthy adaptation The Road (2009) ”“ Lawless delivers plenty of visceral action but also much unexpected depictions of familial harmony and romance.

Hillcoat’s and Cave’s Lawless is adapted from The Wettest County in the World, the 2008 book by Matt Bondurant. Bondurant’s ”Ëœnovel’ is a semi-fictional account of the incredible deeds and true events (drawn from various family stories and anecdotes, newspaper headlines, articles and court transcripts) surrounding his paternal grandfather Jack and granduncles Forrest and Howard. From this material Hillcoat and Cave have fashioned their own equally mythic, timeless tale, carrying faint echoes of the work of John Ford, Peckinpah, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Roger Corman’s rural mobster flicks and Robert Mitchum’s Thunder Road.

Featuring one of the best ensemble casts in years, a lyrical, fast paced screenplay and an inventive soundtrack (also by Cave and fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis), Lawless is an anarchic celebration of outlaw figures, laced with gallows humour, and the indomitability of the family unit. It is also an emphatic rejection of any definition of “law and order” as enforced by society. The parallels between our contemporary “war against drugs” and the Prohibition era can easily be drawn.

1931, The Great Depression, America. High in the mountains of Franklin County, Virginia, the Bondurant brothers are legendary figures. The eldest, Howard (Jason Clarke), managed to survive World War One but he returned shaken by what he had seen and done. His brother Forrest (a great Bane-sized Tom Hardy) is a quiet, forceful character, with a fierce, instinctive invincibility that defines him. Jack (an outstanding performance by Shia LaBeouf), the youngest sibling, is impressionable and sensitive, yet smart.

Times are tough and employment is in meagre supply, but the Bondurant’s are intuitive entrepreneurs and have constructed a flourishing local business by formulating a potent and widely admired brand of moonshine liquor. Yet the Bondurant’s Franklin County’s idyllic bootlegging days in their new Eden (which Benoit Delhomme’s wonderful organic cinematography highlights, contrasting the down-to-earth, hushed colours of the Bondurant’s with the flash wardrobe of the city slickers and mobsters) are about to abruptly end with the arrival of the odious, unhinged and fastidiously dressed Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (another great turn by the fabulous Guy Pearce, wearing a bowtie, tight white leather gloves and centre parted, slicked back dyed black hair) from the dark, satanic city of Chicago. The new urban “law” Rakes brings is deadly and fraudulent ”“ an open assault upon everything the brothers have built up and symbolise. The rest of the county accesses to Rakes’ callous crackdown, but the Bondurant’s will kowtow to no one.

Overcome with reveries of slick suits, glamorous cars and good-looking women, Jack starts his own bootlegging venture, with his friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan) helping him to soup up cars and build stills ”“all against Forrest’s wishes. Jack’s business starts to blossom, even trading his moonshine to the infamous Floyd Banner (a brief but memorable cameo from Gary Oldman, which could have definitely been extended), the big time Chicago gangster he idolises. The lives of the Bondurant boy’s soon become even more convoluted with the arrival of two beautiful women: the mysterious, unwavering Maggie (the excellent Jessica Chastain), who brings a clandestine past with her and catches the eye of the cautious Forrest – and the calm, religious Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), who gradually warms to Jack’s amorous overtures and channels her own insubordinate vein.

Jack’s confidence soon gets the better of him, which Rakes exploits to the full. The consequences of Rakes’ actions will test the brothers’ fidelity and imperils them all.

Gratifyingly brutal and yet strangely good-natured in equal measure, Lawless certainly lives up to its title. Hillcoat the many comparisons between the Great Depression and the current economic situation, Prohibition (who benefited from outlawing alcohol, who is controlled it and who made the money) and drug laws in the 21st century.

Cave and Ellis also underscore the similarities between the past and present through the music feature in the picture. Country bluegrass singer Ralph Stanley sings a 1930’s bluegrass version of The Velvet Underground‘s 1968 ”ËœWhite Light, White Heat’. Obviously, the subject of ”ËœWhite Light, White Heat’ is amphetamines, but here the song refers to liquor moonshine, the crystal meth of the era. Vintage Nashville combined with classic punk is the result in a score that features Emmylou Harris singing ”ËœThe Snake Song’ by Townes Van Zandt (possibly Forrest’s theme), while highlighting the cultural cross fertilisation between the blues and gospel of the African American populace in the hills of Virginia with the Scots Irish country music of that area.

Brimming with kinetic energy, raw, violent deeds, sardonic humour and outlaw spirit, with a tale as rattling as a Tommy gun, Lawless effortlessly joins the ranks of the great gangster pictures. You’ll believe a man can have his throat cut wide open and live to croak the tale.

All words by Ian Johnston. You can read more from Ian on LTW here.

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