Review : Lawless
Few groups get treated as badly by the movies as the country folk of the US South. This slander reached a peak with Deliverance, and its indelible linking of banjo playing with sexual assault and inbred hicks. In the Hollywood scale of evil incarnate, hillbillies tend to rank somewhere just below Nazis and just above motel owners, clowns, and men with cut-glass English accents. The release of John Hillcoat’s exhilarating new film goes some way to balancing out the ledger. Sparkling with one of the best casts of the year, Lawless is a boondocks Godfather.
The story is in love with Southern Gothic heritage, but quick-witted enough to resist cliché. It’s the height of prohibition, and in Franklin County, Virginia, the Bondurant brothers are carving out their own slice of the American dream. They’re led by softly spoken Forrest (Tom Hardy), who tells his brothers that they’re immortal. It’s a helpful myth to believe when you’re in the bootleg whiskey game, running a moonshine racket out of hillside stills which transform turnips into firewater. Just like the family Corleone, their subset of capitalism requires cunning, and the occasional application of hard iron to soft flesh.
Their outfit becomes profitable enough to catch the attention of Special Agent Charlie Rakes, played up with an oily evil by an eyebrowless Guy Pearce. Rakes is a fussy, urbane snob obsessed with sanitation and racial purity, who begins to ruthlessly cut his way to the heart of the family’s organisation. As Rakes begins his siege, the brothers are distracted by their own competing desires. The runt of the Bondurant litter, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), falls over himself to impress a preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska), while Forrest takes in Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a scarlet-clad woman running from trouble in Chicago.
Jack becomes hung up on doing business with the debonair gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). LaBeouf’s youthful, rodent charm fills out Jack’s increasing ambition, and there are few cinematic pleasures as pure as watching Gary Oldman berate a minion. In contrast, Hardy’s Forrest spends the film wrapped in an impenetrable grey cardigan and battered hat, with an understated drawl that makes the more deep fried cod-philosophy of the script work. His solid presence radiates a quiet authority, right through to his descent into sickening violence.
The women are basically stock B-movie characters, but at least there’s some degree of subversion to wriggle around in. Jessica Chastain is the femme fatale in a red velvet dress, but she cools down in confrontation with Forrest, her lovely face draining of colour. Wasikowska’s Bertha may have her head chastely covered, but she sasses Jack from behind a soda pop bottle. What they don’t get in character development they each manage to overcome with beautifully modulated performances and two sets of expressive shoulder blades.
After the near-fatal advent of Jack’s partnership with Banner, the Bondurant’s empire expands. Blood is shed, and the money and whiskey start to flow down the mountain. Rakes discovers that he’s dealing with more than livestock-worrying clodhoppers, and the film draws into a nerve rattling showdown. The movie has the confidence to veer from moments of comedy to tragedy, pushing around its characters from churches, to underground wakes, to blood-splattered rooms.
Hillcoat, working from a script by Nick Cave – not an artist noted for his subtlety when it comes to morbid subjects – steers his work away from just being a hipster-baiting Americana joyride. The camera never lingers on overlong shots of mason jars, Spanish moss, toothless codgers, or crucifixes. Instead of whacking the gothic levels up to ten, the filmmakers avoid genre sogginess, and all the polish associated with gangsters is rubbed right off. It’s a movie that gleans the best out of its classic story. This time, the yokels on screen are certain to be taken seriously.
Lawless is released in the UK in September.