Lawless, the recent 1930s-set American-backwoods gangster movie, comes with impressive credentials. It’s directed by John Hillcoat, whose CV includes the 2005 Australian-western The Proposition and the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. It’s scripted by singer-songwriter and occasional novelist Nick Cave, who also scripted The Proposition. (Along with Warren Ellis, he supplied the music for The Road, but had no hand in that film’s screenplay.) And its cast contains a number of big-hitters, both established stars like Guy Pearce and Gary Oldman and up-and-coming ones like Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska and Shia LaBeouf. Yet despite the talent on display, and despite some good moments, Lawless never manages to be the sum of its parts. Why not?
Part of the problem is the weight of expectation attached to Lawless, following Hillcoat and Cave’s previous collaboration, The Proposition. That film was remarkable – ostensibly it was a western, though one set in the 19th-century Australian outback rather than on the American frontier. It was suffused with lyricism but also doused in brutality, and – an increasingly rare thing for a period movie made these days – it was unflinching in its depiction of the dust, dirt, flies, grease and general squalor that constituted the daily living conditions for most people at that particular time and place. Indeed, it left you feeling that the great civilising moment in Australian history came when somebody decided to import shampoo.
The plot of Lawless has some similarities with that of The Proposition. Both films concern a trio of brothers living on the wrong side of the law, three sibling bushrangers in The Proposition, three sibling bootleggers called the Bondurant brothers – played by Hardy, LaBeouf and Jason Clarke – operating in the Virginian mountains during Prohibition in Lawless. Also, both feature a lawman who tries to resolve problems through moderation and diplomacy, only to have his work violently and bloodily undone when a hard-line and unsympathetic superior intervenes. In the case of Lawless, things turn bad with the arrival of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, whom Guy Pearce plays as an out-and-out and practically psychotic bastard.
Unfortunately, that’s all there is to Lawless. At the start, the three Bondurants are happily distilling moonshine while the county sheriff and his men tactfully turn a blind eye to their activities, provided a few free jars of the stuff are occasionally passed their way. Then Pearce appears on the scene, disturbs the equilibrium, makes life hard for the Bondurants, and things reach an inevitably vicious conclusion. Not only does the overall plot seem a bit thin, but it feels illogically protracted. Even half-an-hour in, Pearce has shown himself to be such a malevolent prick that you wonder why Hardy and co couldn’t just shoot him to shreds there and then.
As a sub-plot, we have LaBeouf as the youngster of the family trying to prove himself to his older and more experienced brothers. At first, he fails to impress. He makes a fool of himself, gets beaten up and generally achieves nothing but derision. Later, however, after he manages to strike an audacious deal that allows him to supply moonshine to a mobster in Chicago, played by Gary Oldman, he wins their respect and becomes a proper player in the family business. Needless to say, as LaBeouf gets more successful, and as the money rolls in in growing quantities, his suits become costlier and smarter, his 1930s jalopies become bigger and shinier, and his demeanour becomes slicker and brasher. But of course this young-novice-ascending-the-ladder-of-crime theme is one that’s appeared over and over again in gangster movies, ever since the days of real Prohibition. Al Pacino, for example, has played a character undergoing the same rite-of-passage twice in his career, firstly in Francis Ford Coppola’s original Godfather movie in 1971 and then in Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface in 1982.
In the absence of anything new, and with a lack of any real narrative meat, Lawless reminded me most of Sam Mendes’ 2002 effort with Tom Hanks, The Road to Perdition – another 1930s-set gangster film that looked good and had its moments of drama, but in the end simply hadn’t enough substance to become a classic. I find this disappointing to report as I’d hoped the 1930s American Prohibition / Great Depression setting would fire Nick Cave’s imagination and inspire him to pen a weightier script than he did. (Then again, he was working from the 2008 book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, a descendent of those Bondurant brothers, who in fact were real-life bootleggers in 1930s Virginia. So Cave may have found his hands tied.) Cave obviously has a fondness for this period, since it’s been a setting both for several of his songs, such as Stagger Lee, which begins, “It was back in ’32 when times were hard / He had a Colt 42 and a deck of cards…”; and for his first novel And the Ass saw the Angel, whose main character is described on the back-cover blurb as ‘(o)utcast, mute, a lone twin cut from a drunken mother in a shack full of junk.’
That said, Lawless contains much to enjoy during its two-hour running time. The cinematography, capturing first the melancholy autumnal hues of the Virginian mountain forests (though it was actually filmed in Georgia) and then their verdant summer greenery, is gorgeous. And Cave’s script does provide some inventive moments: lyrically inventive moments, such as when LaBeouf, infatuated with the local Baptist preacher’s daughter and tanked up on moonshine, stumbles drunkenly into a church service and finds himself participating in a weird but somehow erotic foot-bathing ceremony; and violently inventive ones, such as when Hardy punches a guy on his – ouch! – throat tumour.
And the performances are good. LaBeouf manages to stay on the right side of smug – even as he rises towards the position of bootlegger kingpin, he keeps his character human and faintly mock-able, so that he doesn’t lose our sympathies. Oldman’s role barely amounts to more than a cameo, but it’s always good to see him. Pearce, meanwhile, doesn’t so much give a performance as serve up a king-sized portion of ham. It’s quality ham, though — you can’t say he isn’t entertaining.
Among the supporting cast, mention should be made of Bill Camp as the peaceable local sheriff who finds himself stuck between a rock and a hard place while the situation between Pearce and the Bondurant brothers escalates into warfare; and Dane DeHaan who plays the Bondurants’ timid and lame-footed cousin Cricket. As the brothers’ backroom boffin who designs and maintains their illicit stills and carries out repairs and improvements to their cars – he even discovers that their vehicles can run on moonshine when gasoline is in short supply – I suppose Cricket is to them what Brains was to the Tracey brothers in Thunderbirds.
However, if the film belongs to anyone, it belongs to Tom Hardy, who plays Forest Bondurant, the alpha male of the pack. Hulking, brooding, often near-inarticulate and sometimes frighteningly brutish, Hardy generates a physical magnetism that makes it wholly believable that, say, a character as smart and sophisticated as the one played by Jessica Chastain should fall for him, mountain hick though he is. I think a while back I wrote on this blog that Britain had never produced an actor the equal of the scary-yet-fascinating Oliver Reed, either B.O. (Before Ollie) or A.O. (After Ollie). Well, on the strength of Hardy’s performance here, Britain has now. Though I hope Hardy doesn’t blow his career as spectacularly as Reed did.
A word about the film’s musical soundtrack, which as you might expect from a production boasting the heavy involvement of Nick Cave, is very good. For Lawless, Cave and Warren Ellis formed a ‘house band’ called the Bootleggers and invited a number of famous singers and musicians to collaborate with them, including the former Screaming Trees frontman and Isobel Campbell’s sometime partner in song, Mark Lanegan (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8A5tfubT_k), Gram Parson’s old muse Emmylou Harris (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yVfrkQjiB4) and legendary 85-year-old Virginian singer and banjoist Ralph Stanley (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3_BXZphU3Y).
The soundtrack isn’t for those expecting the music of a 1930s Virginia-set film to be historically and culturally accurate. Among the above names, only Ralph Stanley belongs to the musical tradition of the area — the tradition brewed from Irish-Scottish folk, jazz and blues influences that, by the mid-20th century, was going under the name of ‘bluegrass’. Purists may balk too at the fact that Stanley contributes a solo track that’s actually an eccentric cover of the Velvet Underground’s White Light / White Heat (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77lc1yxBtFE). But most aficionados of good music won’t need to imbibe much moonshine before they find themselves tapping a foot to the tunes accompanying this movie.