Thursday 13 September 2012
(John Hillcoat, 2012) Lawless - the unfortunately generic title given to this adaption of Matt Bondurant's novel "The Wettest County" - bears more than a few similarities with The Proposition, Hillcoat's brutal, beautiful 2005 outback Western. Both films deal with legendary bands of Outlaw brothers, both feature scenes of horrific violence, both have a nicely authentic sense of dirt under the fingernails in their evocations of time and place, and both were written by Nick Cave. But where The Proposition is almost demented in its determination to plunge into the heart of darkness it glimpses in the founding of Australia, Lawless is a far more pedestrian and conventional movie experience. Its story could have come from a hundred more contemporary urban gangster sagas; detailing as it does the efforts of the youngest and least formidable brother to break into the family business, and the price he must pay in the blood of those he loves. He is Jack Bondurant (Shia Lebouef) and he is somewhat in awe of his older brothers; the violent veteran of WWI, Howard (Jason Clarke, as good as he always is) and the leader of their clan, the famously invulnerable Forrest (Tom Hardy, working his particular brand of monosyllabic menace so well that even his signature cardigans are terrifying). They are bootleggers in the woods of Lincoln County during Prohibition but the arrival of a new D.A and his pet enforcer, the dandyish and psychotic Chicagoan Deputy Rakes (Guy Pearce, an absolute hoot throughout) isolates them as the only family who do not bow down and pay up protection money. The violence this unleashes coincides with Jack's successful connection with a big city gangster (an underused Gary Oldman) and unprecedented wealth, which only raises the stakes in the Bondurant's conflict with the law. For much of the time Lawless feels like quite a classy period drama. Featuring lovely production design and costumes, it is beautifully shot by Benoît Delhomme, and the cast is deep with talent, from Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska as love interests for Forrest and Jack to Noah Taylor as Oldman's stooge. And then every so often it explodes with violence and is revealed as something like a 1970s exploitation picture, filled as it is with fist fights, gun battles, car chases and hideous instances of torture. Hillcoat is good with violence and even better with the brooding instant before it erupts, and Hardy and Pearce both get a couple of great sequences where the screen itself seems to cringe in anticipation of the imminent brutality. But these two films - the serious, quality drama and the gritty pulp epic - never quite coalesce. An over-familiar story doesn't help, and neither does Lebouef's slightly watery performance as Jack. He compares poorly to the boldness and charisma of the actors playing his brothers, and all the satisfying genre beats and fine soundtrack cuts evident elsewhere cannot compensate for that.