We’ve sent our man Stephen Jenkins to the deep south (well, Birmingham) to check out Palm d’Or competitor Lawless, the new depression-era gangster thriller from John Hillcoat and Nick Cave (!). It’s out later this week, so here’s your first look from The Saint.
We’re in Prohibition-era Virginia, Franklin County to be precise, as John Hillcoat documents the true story of the three Bondurant Brothers in Lawless. Forrest, Howard and Jack run a bootlegging operation in the wooded hillsides of the ‘Wettest County in the World’ – so named for the abundance of illegal liquor manufactured in the area, and also the title of Matt Bondurant’s 2008 historical novel about his ancestors exploits.
The set up is as straightforward as they come. Three brothers fuelled by money, family pride and a self mythologized invincibility in the face of the law and death, rise to the top of their criminal profession in a time when to make money (lawfully or otherwise) you have to be prepared to take some risks. Forrest (Tom Hardy) is the brains behind the operation while Howard (Jason Clarke) provides his brawn when required, if he’s not taking it upon himself to limit the volume of their stash by means of drinking it all. The only thing that youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) has to offer – besides sweeping the floor – comes in the form of his friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan), a lowlife ‘cripple’ who has a knack for the science behind alcohol distillation. Other than the odd scuffle with a few opportunists who should really know better, everything is as tidy as can be as far as business is concerned; the Bondurants don’t bother anyone and nobody bothers the Bondurants. That is until Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) sticks his well pruned nose in, looking to take a cut of the profits in order to keep the state attorney of the Bondurant’s backs. But as you can probably guess, this isn’t a family who are happy making deals with out-of-towners, let alone those with a rank and title.
What ensues is an explosive clash between the corrupt on both sides of the law – Rakes clamps down on the slackness in local policing whilst also stamping his boot on the face of any Bondurant brother, which is usually that of the ‘ball-less’ Jack. As Rakes soon finds out though, if you ask the brothers for balls, balls is what you get; and they naturally retaliate with due acts of violence sending the whole thing into a spiral of escalating brutality and bloodshed which is as enthralling as it is gut-wrenching. Suspense is never quelled and stark direction from John Hillcoat ensures that just enough is implied to keep the impact of shock as mentally engaging as it is viscerally chilling.
It’s hard to find the same level of balance when it comes to the film’s development of character. Despite the extensive pedigree of actors which make up the cast of Lawless, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of acting going on. This isn’t to say that good performances aren’t given, because they are, across the board, but it’s often in fleeting moments due to the nature of the script, which tries to bite off more than it can chew. For instance, the character of Floyd Banner, a big time criminal overlord played by Gary Oldman only appears in the film for enough time to give a wink to Jack in one scene, stick a gun in his face in another and then pat him on the back and give him a bit of advice. Even Tom Hardy’s character, Forrest, sometimes has the limited dialogue of ‘Err’ and ‘Ugh’. Still he’s more comprehensible than when in the Bane mask.
The only character that is really focused on to any worthwhile extent is Shia LaBeouf’s Jack, but even then he essentially plays the same plucky brat he always does, except this time he’s wearing dungarees and a flat cap. But if Nick Cave’s script can be criticised for its sweeping ambition then he more than makes up for it by providing a catalogue of witty one-liners befitting any movie of the gangster genre.
One performance of note however lies in the hands of Guy Pearce’s pernickety psycho-cop, Charlie Rakes. Seemingly modelled half on a Dr. Seuss cartoon and half on the doctor from The Human Centipede, Rakes has an exactness of method in everything he does which will haunt even the most severe of OCD sufferers. Pearce delivers this with a chilling demeanour and shrillness of voice that will ensure you never watch anyone remove a pair of leather gloves without feeling a shiver down your spine. As with many of the characters in the film, we get to know very little about Special Agent Rakes but with credit to Pearce’s acting, you will feel like you’re better off knowing as little as possible.
Lawless isn’t the kind of film that’s going to blow you away, and apart from the abundance of violence, there is very little in the way of shock that will remain with you after you leave the cinema. It doesn’t do anything that any other gangster film, from the prohibition era to the modern day, hasn’t done before – it has bludgeoning and bullet wounds by the bucket load and it asks a few interesting questions about the morality of criminality and the corruptibility of the law. That said, it’s important to remember that this isn’t a film that is pitched to create story which will make you re-evaluate whether being bad is good or vice versa. The real merit of Lawless lies in the cinematic documentation of a national history of prohibition America and the personal history of the Bondurant family. After all, this story really happened – which would at least explain why the ending is so naff.