Director: John Hillcoat
Writer: Nick Cave (screenplay), Matt Bondurant (book)
Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman
Release date: August 29th, 2012
Distributors: The Weinstein Company, FilmNation Entertainment
Running time: 115 minutes
Best part: Guy Pearce’s creepy turn.
Worst part: The unbalanced narrative.
The prohibition era gangster film has always been a popular movement in modern cinema. Despite their period piece settings, films such as Miller’s Crossing, Public Enemies and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (comedic example) have brought the genre into the contemporary filmmaking era with dashes of wit and violence. The latest presentation of 1930’s gangster life, Lawless, is a gritty, authentic yet confused retrospective of the infamous Bondurant brothers. Continuing the current trend of prohibition-era crime drama, born from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Lawless is a pulpy, visceral yet profound lesson in gangster lore.
The Bondurant brothers were supposedly immortal moonshine makers and runners, situated in the hills outside of a crime-ridden Chicago. With Al Capone and other dangerous men ruling the city, the Bondurants were in charge if the regional distribution of illegal alcoholic substances. Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard Bondurant (Jason Clark) are two of the most notoriously violent citizens of a broken United States. The youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) wants to be just like them, trying anything to prove his worth to his older siblings. Their control of the countryside is interrupted however by the introduction of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), determined to destroy every drop from their distillery. Along with an alluring new bartender (Jessica Chastain), the brothers fight to keep their reputations alive and the dirty cops at bay.
The film successfully combines old and new Hollywood-style crime genre conventions. The strong, straight edged characters are brought to life with every gun shot, punch and stab, containing a loud ring to effectively depict every brutal act in this vile conflict. The third film by Australian director John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road) is a dirty and hauntingly authentic look at so-called true events. The story of the Bondurant brothers is presented from Jack’s point of view. Unfortunately, this narrow presentation of gangster life and family bonds in the southern districts of America only focuses on the exploits behind Jack’s one dimensional goals. His eagerness to join the running and distilling business leaves little development for the other, more intriguing characters in this meaty story. Despite his character’s naive and occasionally banal nature, LaBeouf puts in a revelatory performance that could hopefully lift his controversial career. The other characters in this enthralling saga are performed convincingly despite the lack of development. Tom Hardy, continuing his promising year after breathtaking performances in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Dark Knight Rises, creates a loyal yet remorseless interpretation of the gangster who lives on his own terms. Despite his nearly inaudible southern drawl, Hardy’s physical presence and piercing stare creates a fierce leader with a slight vulnerable side. Also enrapturing in their small roles are the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, Dane DeHaan, Noah Taylor, Mia Wasikowska as Jack’s love interest Bertha and Gary Oldman as influential outlaw Floyd Banner.
“It is not the violence that sets men apart, alright, it is the distance that he is prepared to go.” (Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), Lawless).
This adaptation of the novel The Wettest County in the World by descendant Matt Bondurant succeeds in creating a darkly rich re-creation of 30’s America. Influenced by prolific crime directors such as the Coen Brothers, Brian De Palma and Michael Mann, Hillcoat efficiently emphasises the earthy and unflattering tones of every bar, dirt road and blood stained room in this era of temptation and cruel violence. Silhouettes and low lighting also effectively capture the depths these characters have fallen into, while the authentic Virginian setting depicts a southern community quickly falling to the evolving landscape of a changing century. The film continues Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave’s flair for punishingly affecting violence and torture sequences. Matching the whipping scenes of Australian western The Proposition and cannibalism in The Road, Lawless lives up to its name and the characters live up to their frightening reputations. Blood splatters all over the walls, gun fights and punch ups are handled with a shocking level of detail, creating many uncomfortable and even blackly comedic moments. Much of the violence and wit is convincingly handled through a passionate performance by Australian actor Guy Pearce. Rakes lashes out at the Bondurant Brothers with a strong distaste for their freedoms and practises. Creating one of the most disgusting yet pampered characters since Alex in A Clockwork Orange, his relentless nature, snarly accent and unique mannerisms create a truly threatening interpretation of the dirty detective character.
Bolstered by Boardwalk Empire’s immense success, Lawless is the latest effort to hop on the cinematic anti-hero wave. Thanks to Cave’s prose and Hillcoat’s style, this gangster flick sucks the stills dry and never lets up!
Verdict: An unfocused yet engaging gangster flick.