Thursday, 13 September 2012

Lawless (2012, John Hillcoat)

This seemingly hackneyed tale of cops-and-robbers blossoms beyond a mere exercise in narrative thrills, focussing on a formalist level of mythic storytelling, a rites of passage telling of a young man's confrontation with worldly evil. Lawless sees director John Hillcoat further materialise himself as a rising auteur and though the film seems over tuned compared to his previous work, there is little to be disappointed with here.

Based on the novel The Wettest County In the World, author Matt Bondurant drew inspiration for his story from his own family history; his grandfather and two brothers and their participation in The Great Moonshine Conspiracy of 1935. Shia LeBeouf plays youngest brother Jack, with Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke as his older more world worn brothers. The three of them make ends meet selling homemade (illegal) liqueur during The Great Depression in Virginia; the brothers are neither greedy nor are they violent unless called upon, they are merely honest and good natured people working a living in a depraved world. Though these characters are capable of great violence, they are not bloodthirsty, though others unfortunately are. Lawless isn't for the faint hearted.

In steps villain of the piece Special Agent Charlie Rakes played by Guy Pierce; Rakes is an incarnation of evil and perhaps the slimiest most detestable villain we're likely to see all year. Working for a crooked politician, his purpose is to press down on the Bondurant brother's business to take a cut of their earnings like everyone else in the county. So begins a war of pride and steadfastness as the brothers, particularly Hardy's 'invincible' Forest, refuses to bow down. As the journey into bloodshed commences so does Jack's personal journey, with LeBeouf providing a very fine assured performance of a young man dragged rather than drawn into a war zone. The adolescent Jack shown in the opening segment who didn't have it in him to kill a farmed pig is soon long forgotten as the horror sets in. The turns in violence that grow throughout and emphasis on family strikes genuine notes of tragedy in a similar manner to that of Jeff Nichols' brilliant Shotgun Diaries.

Survival and the family unit under pressure has formed the basis for Hillcoat's last three features; the father/son relationship of The Road and the three Burns brothers of The Proposition - the film that Lawless relates to most. Like the mythic beast that was Arthur Burns, in Lawless we have a similar figure, albeit a more compassionate one in Forest Bondurant; his presence brings the weight of experience with it, a still fairly young life hardened by the world. Forest, like his damaged veteran brother Howard know that for their young Jack to survive he must be like they are, waiting for the event to finally bring that transition around.

All three of Hillcoat's films take place in brutal landscapes where life has becomes cheap and human bonds tested to lengthy extremes and Lawless is no different, save for a feeling of economy in the storytelling more apparent than the others. Nick Cave's screenplay is a driven and purposeful one set on accomplishing it's goals without pretension, an admirable quality that finds the picture feel rather hemmed in when put against the expansiveness of his more at ease approach for The Proposition. Perhaps it's due to there being more tasks to complete this time round; there is, after all, the love interests for Jack and Forest played by Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain respectively. Then there's the matter of shoehorning Gary Oldman's criminal master Floyd Banner into the picture, a catalytic addition that helps along Jack's transition. Oldman is left with only two major scenes despite his name earning top billing, whether that is satisfactory will depend on the viewer's adoration over one of the world's finest performers. With such a striking screen presence Lawless would only have benefitted from more of Oldman's Banner, in fact the film could have benefited from being longer. At just under two hours it feels rather condensed, sometimes feeling stifled in its developments. Some extra time would have allowed it to unfurl more comfortably, leaving the incredible ensemble of actors feeling more necessary in their involvement.

The fact that Matt Bondurant dug up his family history through the grapevine and old documents provide the film with a touching personal quality of melancholia, a feeling of times past but with an essence of hope due to the story's timeless message of mortality. The film is bathed in a romanticised nostalgia, with Benoit Delhomme's photography producing as if from memory, Jack's memory? Or perhaps our version of memory as we try to imagine life of the past, relying only on films such as these to take us there. The photography heightens the landscape of the film's Virginia setting, a glorious land that probably didn't have trees as luscious as shown, or fields as vast and healthy, but if Jack Bondurant were alive today he would most likely imagine them as so.

As Lawless ascends to levels of ever increasing intensity before giving way to its impressively warm finale, the pieces of understated performances come together to form a rewarding conclusion, revealing how attached we've become to these largely reticent characters. Some well placed moments of humour are also fitting and work well to ease the nerves after an explosive third act. To analyse Lawless on the merit of narrative structure, characterisation, and plausibility would be ill advised as it clearly wasn't the intention of all involved to operate on such regular levels. This is a film playing off mythic conventions with archetypal characters representing more than the individual,  something bigger than all of us yet something unavoidable. For this, it's easier to forgive its imperfections - its clashes of performance and narrow narrative space  - because it's clear these were conscious decisions made to make the film work on a particular level, and it works just fine.


  1. I greatly enjoyed this film and you've summed up the key aspects of what make it so strong brilliantly. Fantastic insights and brilliantly written; this is a great piece!

  2. Shia was good, Tom was good, but the one who really knocked this out of the park was Guy Pearce. Hopefully, just hopefully, he may get his first Oscar nomination for this but I almost highly doubt it since it’s a little too early to be calling out nominations so soon. Good review Joseph.

  3. Thanks Dan, glad you enjoyed reading. Yeah Pierce really was knockout in this, though I doubt his chance at an Oscar nom. His character, while being one of the most detestable villains in recent memory, was very pantomime and depthless. Though i argue in my review that this was a conscious approach of the film to have characters acting as vessels for worldly forces. Thank you the comment, hope to see you on here again.