Following on from the disappointing avant-garde prison allegory Ghosts of the Civil Dead, the frolicking Aussie crime drama The Proposition, and the bleak, hollow adaptation of Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road, Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat returns with this robust, machismo gangster drama.
Teaming up once again with musician, author, and sometime screenplay writer Nick Cave, Lawless is the adaptation of historical novel The Wettest County in the World, by Matt Bondurant. Full of crime, violence and misogyny, it’s a morality tale centring around three Bad Seeds.
Shia LaBeouf stars as Jack Bondurant, the youngest of three bootlegging brothers who supply the inhabitants of Franklin County, Virginia, with illegal liquor known as moonshine during Prohibition. An aggravated teenager going into adulthood, Jack is the heart and the soul of the movie, whilst the perpetually intoxicated middle brother Howard, and the grunting, patriarchal elder son Forest (Jason Clarke and Tom Hardy, respectively) provide the brain and brawn. Whilst affable local mobster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) patrols the city streets, a dandified Chicagoan law enforcer steps in as a new predator on the Bondurant’s turf, who does everything in his power – lawful, or otherwise – to destroy the family business.
A nuevo Western (it’s set in the East, for a start), the token love interests come in the form of Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the coy daughter of an Amish preacher after Jack’s heart. More interestingly, red haired damsel in distress Maggie (the bewitching Jessica Chastain) stumbles into the county wanting to forget the dancing days she left behind in town and ends up striking a sensual nerve with the diffident Forrest.
Although Hillcoat and Cave never commit to any stylistic form, they dabble with the world’s of Clint Eastwood westerns and Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. Much like the source material by Jack’s grandson, Lawless resolutely pardons, even eulogises the Bondurants’ barbaric behaviour. Using the cliches of community philanthropy – and a young cripple called Cricket (Dane DeHaan) – to make the three hillbillies look like tobacco chewing, white whiskey slurring Robin Hoods. Not that the film should have a validated ethical judgement, but the lack of one – plus the subordinated female stock characters – make for stinted viewing.
As is often the case with Hillcoat’s work, Lawless has some fantastic aspects, but fails to gel together to make one brilliant film. It’s highlights come first and foremost from the performances, most notably the restrained, stoic performance from Tom “The Cardy” Hardy as the paternal older brother Forrest, Shia LaBeouf showing great thespian depth as the younger brother in the shadows Jack, and Guy Pearce’s camped-up turn as insipid city cop Charlie Rakes brilliantly personifies Nick Cave’s run-in with American murderer Stagger Lee.
Elsewhere, there’s the footstomping soundtrack made up of bluegrass renditions of classic rock songs such as Captain Beefheart’s ‘Sure ‘Nuff Yes I Do’ and The Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat’, performed here by Nick Cave, his frequent collaborator Warren Ellis and country legend Ralph Stanley, under the apropos moniker The Bootleggers. In the wings, there’s the beautiful hot-rod Ford motorcars, the luscious, gritty cinematography of Benoît Delhomme and the excellent period costume design from frequent Hillcoat collaborator Margot Wilson (if the movie gets any Oscar nods, it’ll be for this).
All that said, there’s something that just doesn’t quite work in this prohibition gangster flick. It’s just not audacious enough for it’s shifty storyline to work. In essence, it’s the tame, polished mainstream version of The Proposition, only worse. Lawless doesn’t have the testosterone, nor the balls to be a truly great film.