Director: John Hillcoat
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman
After earning worldwide acclaim for their violent Australian western The Proposition seven years ago, the director John Hillcoat and the rocker-turned-screenwriter Nick Cave apply a similarly potent mix of literary lyricism and throat-slitting savagery to the 1930s gangster-movie genre in Lawless. Set in rural Virginia at the height of Prohibition and the Great Depression, Hillcoat's stylish ensemble drama aspires to make a weighty statement about twisted human morality. It never quite succeeds, but it works just fine as a superior pulp thriller.
This time, Cave is adapting Matt Bondurant's family bootlegging memoir The Wettest County in the World, rather than composing an original story, but there are still clear links to The Proposition in the film's tone, cast and theme. Each story revolves around three criminal brothers forced into a treacherous confrontation by corrupt lawmen. Guy Pearce co-stars in both films, here playing a crooked special agent whose dandyish manner masks a psychotic dark side. Once again, Cave and his frequent musical collaborator Warren Ellis provide the score, blending mournful folk-rock with bluegrass and country elements.
Shia LaBeouf shoulders the bulk of the dramatic burden as the youngest of the Bondurant brothers, who run a lucrative business in "moonshine" - illegally brewed alcohol - in rural Virginia. Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman, both fresh from The Dark Night Rises, add extra star ballast to the testosterone-heavy cast. Hardy plays the eldest brother, a brooding hulk who foolishly believes himself invincible. Oldman has a brief but powerful supporting role as a gun-toting Chicago mobster keen to muscle in on the moonshine business.
Lawless is overlong and clumsy in places, notably in the thinly written female roles of Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska. While Cave has previously written a novel and whole albums of gothic ballads set in the Deep South, a screenplay is a very different animal. His florid period language and archetypal characters strain for the mythic weight of classic crime sagas such as Bonnie and Clyde or LA Confidential, but they fall short.
That said, Lawless still delivers plenty of brooding tension and visual flair. Benoit Delhomme's sumptuous cinematography lends these scrappy backwoods bootleggers an epic dimension, making great use of deep shadows and painterly earth tones. Hillcoat may have proved an ill-matched director for Cormac McCarthy's more nuanced The Road, but here he is back on more confident ground with a pulp symphony of stylised carnage and blood-splattered Americana. A guilty pleasure, perhaps, but a pleasure all the same.
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