Revisiting the fraternal bonds of The Proposition and gloomy nihilism of The Road, John Hillcoat’s Lawless is a boisterous fable of male bravado and violence.
Band Of Brothers by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Three brothers on the wrong side of the law, it’s a recurring theme for the scriptwriter and director partnership of Nick Cave and John Hillcoat. Transposing the action for his latest brothers-in-arms drama from the burnt orange outback of The Proposition to Prohibition-era Virginia lends Lawless a pleasing patina, filled with moonshine stills and southern speakeasies. This time, Hillcoat’s mothlike attraction to leading lights sees Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska take over from Emily Watson, Danny Huston and Ray Winstone, while Guy Pearce puts in another tremendous performance for the director, this time as the law-enforcing antihero Special Agent Charlie Rakes. Based on real events, these dazzling stars don’t however detract from the story’s gloomy truthfulness. Rather, they enhance it – each bringing forth moments of luminous pleasure into the lawless dark.
Jessica Chastain does perhaps the most with the least – silent observer to the Bondurant boys, her backstory so skeletal its ribs poke out of its sheer green dress. And yet despite a majestically ethereal presence, a role which echoes her silent, watchful grace in Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, Maggie quietly exudes the promise of a quieter life, armed with one last grandstanding speech and a repertoire of city airs and graces that easily fill the brothers’ saloon in the Franklin hills with a sophisticated charm. As Bertha, the object of Jack’s puppy-dog affections, Mia Wasikowska summons up a wispy goodness familiar from Gus Van Sant’s Restless, but without the worldly steel of Maggie, she seems little more than another female oasis of domestic bliss just beyond the brothers’ grasp.
As Jack, Shia LaBeouf provides the film’s moral touchstone, torn between his brothers’ bootlegging life of violence and crime, and Bertha’s religious virtue. And despite his get rich or die trying schemes, his innocence is protected – his sensitive nature prevents him from killing, neither the piglet he faced as a boy or the lawmen and gangsters that threaten him on Franklin’s roads. It’s an internal battle that chokes the film, and when Jack finally shoots archvillain Rakes with a bullet to the chest, there’s an awkward equivalence between killing and becoming a man; a moral ambiguity only cinema can get away with. Hillcoat’s film does all it can to defend the boy’s bloodlust, heightened as it is like a revenger’s tragedy turned by a screw, firstly out of revenge for his own pounding at the hands (and feet) of the Special Deputy, secondly for the death of his childhood buddy Cricket, and finally for the broken and bruised battering of his hero-brother Forrest.
In a reprise of his role in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson as the charming psychopath, Tom Hardy provides Lawless with its emotional crux. Jack’s whippersnapper aspiration and underdog rise from torn rags to camel coats are all very well, but it’s in the slow humanising of Forrest’s extravagant hubris that the film finds its unlikely centre, as Maggie reveals in a pre-battle heart-to-heart how Forrest didn’t walk to hospital by himself with his throat slit at all, the family legend of the Bondurant brothers’ invulnerability delicately undone. A proud, stoic and loyal brother, Forrest is a cardigan-sporting conundrum, a grunting would-be recluse, who’s not afraid to pull out a knuckleduster or chop his enemies into tiny, little pieces. And yet, he’s also the grounding counterbalance to Jack’s grand schemes, a godlike presence in constant opposition to the ups and downs of everyman Jack, the feisty underdog on the make.
It’s Guy Pearce though, with his inch-wide central parting, brillantined hair and suspicious lack of sideburn, that steals the show. Much of his character’s backstory seems to have been excised from the script, but as the crooked arm of Prohibition law he’s not afraid to punish with dastardly hammed-up violence and make examples of his enemies with feathers and tar. With the crux of the film’s plot centred around the police’s determination to take a cut of the bootleg earnings, Lawless makes little of the philosophical concepts of law and order, even despite its title. Instead, it’s a return to the dog-eat-dog world of The Road, with every man for himself. There’s also a vague attempt to turn the Bondurant brothers into heroes, as the ‘little folk’ standing up to state corruption, but such noble aggrandisement is only given short shrift, Hillcoat preferring instead to focus on the hailstorm of violence which proves Forrest’s indestructibility and Jack’s rise to manhood.
Lawless doesn’t have a great deal to say, offering instead the thrills and spills of an action thriller while revelling in its period charm and exuberant characters. Its ensemble cast breathes life into an otherwise familiar mishmash of Hollywood story arcs, but it’s still a breathless two hours of beguiling performances in a captivating whirlwind of violence. Like its central hero Forrest, Lawless might be quiet, but it can still pack a punch.
Lawless is released in the UK on 7th September 2012