Lawless: Like The Brothers’ Moonshine, This Violent Joyride Goes Down Smooth
When did John Hillcoat develop a sense of humor? Lawless, Hillcoat’s newest collaboration with writer/composer Nick Cave, carries the same violence and dirt-covered beauty that made The Proposition and The Road so distinctive, but unlike its predecessors, Lawless has plenty of laughs mixed in with the mayhem and– dare I say it?– is lots of fun. The relatively lighter mood suits Hillcoat just fine, as the gorgeous cinematography and an uptempo moonshine-era score give this film a more distinguished air than the other shoot-em-ups, and the gruesome blood, showy performances, and easygoing chemistry give it a looser quality than other stuffier period pieces. It may not be up in any major categories this awards season, but Guy Pearce and Tom Hardy lead a cast as fine as any so far this year. Any potential audience members frightened off by previous Hillcoat bleakness should have their fears alleviated– I left the theater, as many will, with a big smile on my face.
In Virginia during the Prohibition era, the moonshine business was booming, and no business was more efficiently run than that of the Bondurant Brothers: Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and the youngest, Jack (Shia LaBeouf). Forrest and Howard took care of everything, leaving Jack on the outside, hungry for a piece of the action. See, Jack, like many young aspiring thugs in cinematic history before him, grew up idolizing the gangsters of the era. One time, he was lucky enough to see a drive-by shooting committed by Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), so while others panicked, he rushed out, picked up a couple of bullet shells, and saved them as souvenirs with his friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan). With their sterling reputation and the addition of a new out-of-town girl to the still, Maggie (Jessica Chastain), the Bondurants were on top of the world. Unfortunately, Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) comes to town in charge of shutting down every moonshining business, or at bare minimum settling their differences with a “protection fee.” Forrest refuses to bend to Rakes… and a major conflict begins.
A word on Tom Hardy. In films like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Warrior, he gave inarticulate lugs depth of soul and a type of poetry to the characters’ stilted mutterings. Forrest Bondurant is far from the showiest character in this film– Jack is a fast talker, Floyd has a few scenes of great confident violence, and Guy Pearce as Charlie Rakes looks utterly hellbent on stealing every scene. Pearce’s hair is slicked and his eyebrows have vanished, turning him into a demon from the Seventh Circle of Corrupt Cop Hell, his Chicago accent biting every consonant and his chin ever jutted out as if daring someone to take a swing. On paper, there is no reason why Forrest Bondurant should be the most compelling figure every time he’s on screen. Tom Hardy simply owns the role, in my favorite performance of his to date. Forrest exemplifies the “only speaks when absolutely necessary” type– his favorite thing to say isn’t a catchphrase, but a guttural grunt, as if merely acknowledging that he understands is enough for him. Not only are these grumbles fearsome and intimidating, they are also howlingly funny. He is the type of badass that makes you smile, and his absolute refusal to speak, cave, or die makes him the stuff legends are born from. If he wasn’t a star yet, this is the type of performance that will keep Tom Hardy’s name atop the marquee for years to come.
In addition to stellar performances all around– both Dane DeHaan and Jessica Chastain are charismatic and heartbreaking in supporting roles– John Hillcoat and Nick Cave deliver the same trademarks they’re known for at this point in their careers. The backwoods of Virginia have never looked grittier and more spectacular. One particular scene in which Jack takes a local girl (Mia Wasikowska) into the woods on a date had the audience murmuring around me how gorgeous the shot was– if the audience can’t help but exclaim that the film looks beautiful, that’s generally a good sign (even if it’s a disturbance). The violence is all visceral and well-executed; Hillcoat knows that if you are shocked by graphic and horrific violence early on, he can tease what violence lurks around the corner for the rest of the film, as the characters back up their words with actions. The music swings compared to Cave’s other elegiac scores for Hillcoat’s films, but it suits the tone of the film to a T. This film isn’t about grim death and life’s unfairness. It’s the usual crime family themes: family comes first, getting out is harder than getting in, and the life of crime isn’t necessarily worth the loved ones you put at risk. Jack is eager at the beginning but emerges as a very convincing adult, more full of maturity and depth than before. Lawless is an exciting step for John Hillcoat as a filmmaker too– he’s emerging as a filmmaker more full of possibility and variety than before. It’s not necessarily deeper than your average summer film, but few films I saw this summer, including the big-budget CGI-laden actionfests, delivered the same sense of satisfaction that Lawless does. *guttural grunt of approval*