As far back as I can remember, I always loved gangster movies. Lawless is the latest offering from John Hillcoat, penned by Nick Cave and starring Tom Hardy, Shia LeBeouf and Jessica Chastain. Following the lives of the Bondurant brothers out of Franklin County, Virginia it ticks all the boxes.
Prohibition is in full swing and the Bondurant brothers are making plenty of moonshine. Jack (Shia LeBeouf) narrates the tale of how he and his brothers Howard (Jason Clarke) and Forrest (Tom Hardy) ran a lucrative bootlegging operation not prepared to toe the line or lie down for any man. The main man in particular is special detective Charlie Rakes played by Guy Pearce. Pearce obviously channelled Christopher Lloyd’s Judge Doom character from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, as at times he is a pantomime villain with ticks and accents, while menacing enough in most scenes to give the character credence.
He certainly has his hands full with the Bondurants as their feud escalates to enormous proportions causing the town to pick sides and face the consequences. Hardy is great but I often wonder is he a great actor or merely pulling the wool over our eyes? His method of playing Forrest as gruff by merely grunting and groaning, which he does for large parts of the film often with comedic consequences is interesting. To give him his dues, he manages to create huge empathy for someone who is essentially a murderous thug, listening to nobody and breaking the law as easily as drawing breath.
The female leads are superbly cast in Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska. This is only Chastain’s second film this year as opposed to the seven she appeared in last year and people should be familiar with Wasikowska’s excellent performance as Jane Eyre last year. Chastain is a woman on the run and keen to help out the brothers, determined not to let her past catch up with her, while Wasikowska is the daughter of the local preacher. The relationships that develop between the women and the brothers is believable and gives most of the emotional core to the film. Without this it would come across as mere blood and guts bravado.
The central theme of Lawless is the coming of age story of Jack. Always seen as the runt of the litter, his two brothers have monumental standing in the community almost being creatures of legend. Many situations present themselves to Jack, and it is merely a question of what will be the tipping point that sends him over the edge to become the man he so desperately wants to be. LeBeouf may have his detractors (Transformers didn’t do him any favours), but cast your mind back to A Guide to Recognising Your Saints and you’ll see that he can still pull out a performance especially as a lost child scrambling for a foothold in a world of men.
A short mention for the supporting cast – Gary Oldman is great as the slick big boss and his second in command Noah Taylor (Submarine, Shine) is great as always. The show stealer however is Dane DeHann (Chronicle). He plays Cricket, a kind of mixture of Lennie and George from Of Mice and Men giving the film a lot of its heart.
The film harks back to a time, if it ever existed, of when men were men and your word was your bond. As Forrest proclaims at one point “it isn’t the money it’s the principle of the thing”. The men here are portrayed as Robin Hoods with the law as the Sheriff of Nottingham, trying to make a crust in a tough world, simple folk not looking for trouble but prepared to take it on when it comes knocking at their door.
It’s not hard to believe Nick Cave wrote the screenplay from Matt Bondurant’s novel “The Wettest County in the World”, as it has many of the themes from his previous film work The Proposition. His regular band mate Warren Ellis also lent a hand with the music, adding a great punchy score to the piece. The musical influences also come from Cold Mountain and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Ralph Stanley who sang the bone chilling “O Death” on the O Brother soundtrack makes a welcome appearance and people will be familiar with the church singing heard previously in Cold Mountain.
Perhaps a tad revisionist and glorifying of those not deserving of much glory, Lawless is at times gruesome but on the whole a great story of a time long past with relatable characters, relationships and resolutions. Hopefully it will get some nods come award season.
USA / Directed By: John Hillcoat / Written By: Nick Cave / Starring: Tom Hardy, Shia LeBeouf, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Jason Clarke, Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman, Noah Taylor, Dane DeHann / 116min / Gangster, Crime, Drama / Release: 29 August 2012 (US/Canada), 7 September 2012 (UK/Ireland)