The Western outlaw and the Maﬁa gangster are two of America’s most outsized
cinematic antiheroes, and while they share a lot of characteristics (and clichés), the few times they have coincided on screen usually involved a DeLorean. But after a long production delay and a splashy debut at the Cannes Film Festival, Australian director John Hillcoat’s Lawless has ﬁnally arrived, and it is the closest thing to a combination of the two archetypes that we’ve seen yet. And while it isn’t the perfect marriage, Lawless blends stylish originality with genre standards into a mixture as potent and explosive as Virginia moonshine.
The tale of the bootlegging Bondurant brothers is a family crime saga designed, it would seem, to mirror that of the Corleones. Their story is one adapted from the historical novel written by the grandson of the youngest brother, culled from anecdotes and newspaper stories, with the gaps ﬁlled in by ﬁction. And while those violent, fraternal dynamics are hard at work here, Lawless feels like a ﬁlm trying so hard to be excellent in every individual facet that it ends up lacking a clear, cohesive tone.
What is clear is that the ﬁlm’s cast, from top to bottom, give performances that infuse this gritty Western with meaning and pathos. Each of the three Bondurants shine in their own way. As Forrest, the eldest, Tom Hardy blends a deep, minimalist quietude with a powerful physical presence, the latter no doubt aided by his preparation for the role of Bane. (Filming for The Dark Knight Rises began a few months after the filming of Lawless.) Shia LaBeouf, as Jack Bondurant, shows the most range he has yet, displaying a deep need for love and acceptance that drives him and the family business to new heights and into new dangers (and does a bit to drive away the memory of his involvement in the Transformers franchise). The two women in the ﬁlm, Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain, play the saint and sinner, respectively, and do their best to lend depth to roles without much to them. Despite a very short stay on screen, homage must be paid to the brilliance of Gary Oldman. Cinema’s ultimate chameleon puts on pinstripes as big city badass Floyd Banner, the idol of wide-eyed Jack and a harbinger of the violence these men must endure to protect their way of life.
The imminent threat to that life is Special Agent Charlie Rakes, played with slippery, fastidious malice by Guy Pearce. Equal parts J. Edgar Hoover and Howard Hughes, his severely parted hair, shaved eyebrows and immaculate suit belie an obsessive desire to purge the ﬁlth from everywhere but inside himself. Pearce crawls inside this snakeskin and lets his disdain for the wettest county in the world seep out onto cops and criminals alike. While Jack is the narrative voice of the ﬁlm, Rakes is its force, declaring war on the Bondurant boys once they become the only game in town, and escalating the visceral violence to cringe-worthy levels.
Despite all the seriousness, Lawless is punctuated with moments of levity and whimsy, and it becomes big fun when it wades out of the deep end. Screenwriter Nick Cave crafted a score that is full of the kind of music that reminds us of this time and place in American history. The necessity of outrunning the lawmen chasing them gives birth to the origins of NASCAR, a romp of a montage that is reminiscent of little Dash Parr discovering he can run on water in Pixar’s The Incredibles. And then there’s Hardy, grunting and mumbling anytime something vexes him, usually to hilarious effect, and especially when it becomes apparent that he’s overly invested in his own invincible legend.
But somewhere in the midst of muting the colors, perfecting the wardrobe and of the actors getting their accents right, there is a disconnect. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with Lawless, and indeed, there are moments of visual splendor combined with transformative acting. But the whole thing feels like getting all the answers right on a multiple choice test—an act of excellence, devoid of emotion.
Director: John Hillcoat
Writer: Nick Cave
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman
Release Date: Aug. 29, 2012