Directed by: John Hillcoat
Starring: Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, and Gary Oldman.
The Plot: Based on the true story of three bootlegging brothers in the backwoods of Franklin County Virginia. When a Prohibition agent (Guy Pearce) has intentions of skimming from the profits of Franklin County’s bustling moonshine operations, the only bootleggers who take a stand against him are the three Bondurant brothers. (LaBeouf, Hardy, and Clarke) Reckless bloodshed ensues.
The Film: About fifteen minutes into John Hillcoat’s new movie Lawless Gary Oldman’s gangster Floyd Banner comes driving into Franklin County unannounced, pulls a Thompson submachine gun from a collection of rifles and shotguns in the back seat of his car, and steps out into the main street of the city. The youngest Bondurant brother, Jack, (Shia LaBeouf – doing the best work of his career here) stops along with everyone else in town to contemplate what the guy with the Tommy Gun might be up to. A few seconds later a second car rolls into Franklin, and Banner hammers the thing with bullets, popping holes in the engine block and body and turning its two occupants into mulch.
The gun goes quiet. Steam hisses out of a devastated car radiator. Then Floyd Banner winks at Jack Bondurant, hops back in his car, and drives off. The two dead men in the slaughtered Model-T turn out to be agents from the Bureau of Prohibition. Shia LaBeouf’s character doesn’t think twice – he grabs one of the spent Tommy gun casings from the middle of the street, and runs off like he just ran into the world’s biggest rock star.
Which pretty much says everything about Lawless you might need to know.
Yes, this is a movie about American bootleggers made by two Australians. And yes.. it does contain an uncommon level of violence. But thanks to some brilliant casting, (especially Jason Clarke as the perpetually drunk and bloodshot Howard Bondurant) a lyrical script by Nick Cave, and one of the best soundtracks this year, (the music in the church scene will have you checking the theater ceiling for the second-coming of Christ himself) Lawless is more than a tough, prohibition-era crime drama – it’s almost poetry.
Or at least the impossible place where poetry and brass knuckles collide.
Nick Cave and John Hillcoat are building on similar themes they started in their 2005 collaboration The Proposition. Both films are about a trio of brothers. Both contain porcelain dolls trapped in coarse, ungovernable territory. In The Proposition it was Emily Watson, in Lawless it’s the exquisite Jessica Chastain – and you could make the argument that Hillcoat kept the trend alive with the addition of Charlize Theron in his adaptation of McCarthy’s The Road. Both feature Guy Pearce playing characters named Charlie – Lawless’s Charlie Rakes is part Schutzstaffel officer, part drag king. And both are about the cyclical nature of violence and the wages of sin.
But as the violence escalates in this story – so does the beauty of its verse.
It’s as if Nick Cave gathered everything obvious about a prohibition crime drama (Jack Bondurant even attempts to date the preacher’s daughter) and then gives it a soul. Through all the gore and throat-cutting there’s a fierce integrity to brotherhood – to blood itself. No character’s purely good in the film – the title Lawless is aimed firmly at both sides of the Volstead act. But when they’re evil – as is Guy Pearce’s Charlie Rakes – they’re pure evil.
Rakes could be marginalized as vaudevillian or melodramatic, but you get the feeling that Nick Cave doesn’t see a simple thing like a bootlegging war without seeing gods and devils operating levers.
And Charlie Rakes is a lever.
Of destruction and damnation, sure, but Nick Cave and Guy Pearce hint at something much more sinister. Charlie Rakes is the embodiment of pride – he’s a sadistic instrument of degradation and humiliation. In a film absolutely packed with great faces, great performances, (Gary Oldman fans reintroduce yourself to the the Oldman of old – the actor who could summon pure hellfire to play Vlad the Impaler, Leon’s coked-up Detective Stansfield, and Lee Harvey-Oswald has returned) and an unforgiving moral code, it’s a testament to the strength of Pearce’s performance that he can play in country this intimidating – and hard.
Lawless is hard country.
The Verdict: Punchy and poetic. If you can stomach Lawless’s graphic brutality there’s a power ballad of blood, brotherhood, and retribution. This is one of the very best things to happen to the world of film in 2012.