‘It is not the violence that sets men apart, it is the distance that he is prepared to go.’
John Hillcoat and Nick Cave’s second feature together has all the hallmarks of a classic genre piece, yet is riddled with bullet holes. Hillcoat’s sparse trademark is more than reminiscent of The Proposition, however, Lawless suffers from underwhelming moments highlighted through a sheer lack of character development. Although there are reprisals in the narrative, it is only during the reliant intensity of the stronger scenes that we are reminded of what we are watching. This is a film that attempts to show stoic figures that have grown to accept their own myth – a beautiful and poetic device that is criminally underused in helping to breathe more life in to the central performances. It is this very notion and heart of the story that Cave’s script dusts over – opting for a style that seems to have been more heavily influenced other gangster films rather than immersing himself in the original source material.
Set during the final years of the prohibition in Depression-era Virginia, Lawless tells the story of the bootlegging Bondurant brothers as they run local deliveries and continue to make a profitable cut. It isn’t long until their illegal distillery business is threatened by the vile, amphibious Charles Rakes (Guy Pierce), a Special Deputy who attempts to bribe the brothers and take control of the local police force who have, up until now, turned a blind eye to their exploits. Jack Bondurant (Shia LeBoeuf) is the youngest of the siblings and struggles with his cowardice and insecurities under his older brothers’ no-nonsense attitude. Although it is LeBoeuf’s character that carries the narrative and shows a defining arc, it is Tom Hardy’s presence as Forrest that delivers the punches and often helps to elevate the dramatic tension. Eldest brother, Howard is practically a non-entity with little to define him next to Hardy’s effortless performance, whereas Garry Oldman’s role as local gangster, Floyd Banner, is nothing more than a cameo and serves very little to do with the plot. Love interests, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska add a touch of glamour amongst the bullets and moonshine, signifying the little hope we have for these characters to survive this bleak tale.
As with all of Hillcoat’s films, Lawless succeeds in one thing; and that is to leave his audience raw and depleted. This is not the issue with the film – the issue is I need to care for more of the characters, especially when dealing with a true story. Somewhere there is a heart buried in Lawless and perhaps with repeat viewings there is more to remember other than its often brutal and violent nature.