Screenwriter Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat collaborated for the exceptional Aussie western The Proposition back in 2005, and Lawless reunites these two boundlessly talented professionals for another historical drama drenched in violence. Similar to The Proposition in terms of tone and brutality, Lawless is an adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s historical novel about the illegal bootlegging activities carried out by Bondurant’s grandfather and granduncles in Franklin County during the Great Depression. Bondurant’s novel was entitled The Wettest County in the World, referring to Franklin County’s Prohibition-era nickname which was given due to the substantial amount of illegal alcohol production that occurred despite the Volstead Act.
With Prohibition and the Depression in full swing, residents of Franklin County, Virginia turn to bootlegging to make a living. The Bondurant brothers – Forrest (Hardy), Howard (Clarke) and Jack (LeBeouf) – maintain their own bootlegging business, using their clandestine backyard distilleries to pump out moonshine for the thirsty locals. The boys have no problem with law enforcement, as they provide samples of their product to the police to persuade them to look the other way. But the law begins to close in on the Bondurant brothers following the arrival of Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Pearce), who demands a cut of the profits. The siblings of course refuse, and thus begins an all-out war, with brutal acts of violence being carried out on both sides.
Lawless is a slow-burning tale of intrigue which takes its time developing its characters and story, demonstrating more concern with dramatic growth than mindless action. But, as with The Proposition and The Road, Hillcoat does not baulk from showing violence –Lawless contains shootouts, a number of brutal beatings and even a throat slitting, all of which were executed with impressive skill and command. However, Hillcoat skilfully prevents the picture from falling into exploitation territory, as the violence is used to allow viewers to comprehend the gravity of various situations and the ferocity of the period. Not to mention, the unsettling action beats are shown to have dire consequences; the resulting injuries are ugly, and even the victors find themselves unfulfilled by the violence. What’s also interesting about Lawless is that you find yourself rooting for the Bondurant brothers despite their criminal status, but only because Rakes and his posse are so repulsive. The film doesn’t glamorise the Bondurants and you never find yourself wanting to be in their position, but they are an endearing trio of antiheroes.
Period films oftentimes feel like stagey re-enactments on obvious sets, but Hillcoat’s recreation of this era feels real. Although Hillcoat did not have a substantial budget at his disposal, Lawless is a visually dazzling motion picture bursting with authenticity. Hillcoat’s approach lacks the gloss and showiness associated with Hollywood, and this is to the flick’s benefit. Lawless conjures up a tremendous sense of legitimacy that’s commendably unobtrusive, and the sets and locations at no point seem manufactured – it looks like Hillcoat took a bunch of cameras back in time to the 1920s to make the film. Shooting on location in Georgia, Hillcoat and director of photography Benoît Delhomme went for a warm, naturalistic colour palette, conveying this little-known tale through breathtaking widescreen images. Added to this, screenwriter Nick Cave provided the score, and his music is every bit as brilliant as his writing; adding atmosphere and identity to this beautifully-executed film. Lawless is admittedly slow-moving, however. It’s never exactly boring, but it does feel long in the tooth and at times narratively unfocused – it’s in the region between The Proposition‘s enthralling brilliance and The Road‘s utter tediousness.
Shia LaBeouf, it seems, is finally growing up. The young star is grating in the Transformers series and clearly has an enormous ego, yet Lawless presented Shia with the opportunity to show signs of maturity, and he ran with it. His performance here is understated but focused, portraying the naïve Jack Bondurant with impeccable conviction. Likewise, Tom Hardy is outstanding as the stoic Forrest Bondurant, espousing a believable period voice to match his spot-on appearance. Hardy’s work is riveting; far superior to his performance in Christopher Nolan’s studiously mediocre The Dark Knight Rises. Meanwhile, Guy Pearce is a genuine scene-stealer as Special Agent Rakes, cutting loose in this over-the-top performance that’s strikingly committed. Pearce is in the upper echelon of cinematic antagonists here – he’s so excellent that you may need to literally restrain yourself lest you try to jump through the screen to kill Rakes yourself. In a smaller but equally important role is Jason Clarke as Howard Bondurant. Though Clarke is not in the spotlight as much as his co-stars, he makes a huge impression. Another big-name actor here is Gary Oldman, who relishes every frame of his limited screen-time as irascible gangster Floyd Banner. Chronicle‘s Dane DeHaan also has a role here as Cricket, and he’s fantastic; believably bringing this innocent and naïve character to life. Rounding out the key players is bright Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, who brings a sweet, delicate touch to the role of Bertha.
Lawless is a tough sell for the average movie-goer. It’s a great movie, yet it’s not life-changing or moving enough for Oscar consideration, nor is it action-packed or entertaining enough to vie for summer box office dollars. Let’s just be thankful that, at the end of a summer beset with loud blockbusters, we got this well-made period movie which treats its audience with respect. Even in spite of the hit-and-miss The Road, it’s clear that John Hillcoat is a talent with a huge career ahead of him.