REVIEW: After proving to be a problematic fit for the grim post-apocalyptic existentialism of "The Road," director John Hillcoat is back on more fertile turf with "Lawless," a muscular slice of grisly Americana rooted in flavorful Prohibition-era outlaw legend. While a touch overlong and not as distinctive as his last collaboration with screenwriter Nick Cave, the Australian Western "The Proposition," the new film is more commercially accessible, fueled by a brooding sense of dread, visceral bursts of violence, potent atmosphere and some juicy character portraits from a robust cast.
The nominal lead figure in the dark ensemble drama is Jack Bondurant, probably the most standard role but one that yields more accomplished work than pretty much anything Shia LaBoeuf has done to date. However, it’s the characters around Jack that supply much of the texture, notably his brothers, the taciturn, philosophizing Forrest (Tom Hardy) and hooch-swilling punisher Howard (Jason Clarke). No less vital contributions come from Guy Pearce as a corrupt, dandified lawman, who has no qualms about spilling blood so long as it doesn’t splash his bespoke suits, and Gary Oldman in a brief but lip-smacking turn as Chicago mobster Floyd Banner.
Adding welcome softer notes are gifted up-and-comer Dane DeHaan as Cricket, a crippled kid whose magic touch produces superior moonshine; Mia Wasikowska as Bertha, a strict preacher’s daughter with a rebellious streak; and Jessica Chastain as Maggie, an emotionally bruised burlesque dancer looking for a quiet life away from the mean city and stumbling instead on a whole other kettle of brutality in the backwoods.
Inspired by "The Wettest County in the World," Matt Bondurant’s 2008 fictionalized account of his bootlegging ancestors’ exploits in 1930s Franklin, Va., the story puts Cave right smack in his element. An artist who has always been drawn to the romance of bloodshed, crime and death, the goth troubadour might just as easily have plucked this tale from his brilliant 1996 album of distilled narratives, "Murder Ballads."
A prologue accompanied by copious voiceover from Jack dips into the self-styled legend of the Bondurant boys. They are believed to be indestructible, particularly Forrest, who survived the flu that killed their parents. As a lad, Jack is revealed to be the runt of the litter. His failure to comply with his tough siblings’ order to put a bullet in a hog unnecessarily telegraphs the task he is destined to fulfill in the final bloodbath. But Hillcoat and Cave seem happy to lift from the classics playbook.
The main action begins in 1931. The now-grown Bondurant brothers run a thriving bootlegging operation in the mountains, one of many outfits supplying quality hooch to the county -- whites, blacks, civilians and lawmen alike. But up north in gangster-land, a crime wave is sweeping the nation, its tentacles inevitably reaching Virginia.
Wanting a slice of the moonshine profits, the crooked commonwealth attorney dispatches Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Pearce), a vicious, perfumed snake who makes no effort to hide his disdain for these hicks. But Forrest makes it clear the Bondurants won’t lie down for anybody, delivering his message with a persuasive combination of knuckleduster and contempt. That sets up him and Rakes as instant nemeses. Forrest also resists overtures from other local bootleggers to comply with the new “law,” insisting on staying solo. That stance combined with Cricket’s high-grade brew helps the brothers prosper.
Running parallel to the encroaching friction with Rakes is the more prosaic strand of Jack’s efforts to earn his big brothers’ respect and become a legitimate player in their operation. His opportunity comes while Forrest is laid up with a fresh Frankenstein scar across his throat from where Rakes’ goons sliced him open. Jack gets a lucky break in a near-fatal encounter with Floyd Banner’s men, among them a nasty stooge played by Noah Taylor. Jack’s cut of the deal allows him to purchase a snazzy auto and sharp threads to help him court the pious and pretty Bertha. Meanwhile, lovely Maggie works the bar at the boys’ Blackwater Station, as she and Forrest shoot each other smoldering glances.
Aided by fluid work from editor Dylan Tichenor, Hillcoat punches the action along at an unhurried yet steady pace, expertly sustaining tension and a mood of impending menace. The inevitable showdown, after Jack’s carelessness leads Rakes to their secret distillery location, is a little too protracted, and the coda 10 years on lingers unduly. But the film maintains its suspense and compelling character engagement throughout.
Without exactly glorifying their outlaw heroes, Hillcoat and Cave definitely keep us in their corner, showing even their most violent actions to be driven by self-protection or payback, never merely by malice. The most memorable of them is somber Forrest, whose dialogue is delivered from somewhere way back in Hardy’s throat, often as barely more than an inarticulate rumble. But from in amongst those animal growls spout occasional pearls of outlaw wisdom, such as “It is not the violence that sets a man apart, it’s the distance he is prepared to go.”
Benoit Delhomme’s widescreen visuals have a handsome epic sweep. The earthy sepia tones and shadowy interiors are shuffled with crisp skies and green forestland covered with vines and tangled willows. The evocative feel for time and place is furthered by Chris Kennedy’s rustic period production design and Margot Wilson’s sharp costumes.
As in "The Proposition," Cave’s contribution extends to an indispensable score, co-written with Warren Ellis. (The team also provided music for Andrew Dominik’s "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," a film that some will no doubt say the less nuanced "Lawless" aspires to be.) Their score here mixes rootsy bluegrass, gospel, country and contemporary songs reinterpreted by Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley, among others.
If "Lawless" doesn’t achieve the mythic dimensions of the truly great outlaw and gangster movies, it is a highly entertaining tale set in a vivid milieu, told with style and populated by a terrific ensemble. For those of us who are suckers for blood-soaked American crime sagas from that era, those merits will be plenty.