Directed by: John Hillcoat
Starring: Shia Labeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke
Sassi’s Star Rating: 3.5/5
You would be forgiven for initially thinking that this prohibition era drama was set in the Wild West. Famed Australian director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) takes a slick gangster escapade from the dark streets of the big city, and thrusts it into the small town austerity of Virginia during the depression. Graphically violent but beautifully shot, Lawless is a spectacle of filmmaking not for the faint hearted (or soft stomached).
Lawless is based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, which fictionalises the lives of prohibition era bootleggers the Bondurant brothers, Matt Bondurant’s grandfather and his brothers. Though technically a dry state, Virginia still managed to gain a reputation as the wettest county around, its isolation and thick terrain making it a perfect place to set up covert distilleries which produced illegal moonshine by the truckload.
The Bondurant brothers are making a killing hawking their product to locals and big city gangsters, with the smoothly greased palms of a few corrupt cops of course. But when special Deputy Charles Rakes (the perfectly sickening Guy Pearce) breezes into town demanding a significant cut- the brothers refuse to bow down. These simple folk take exception to Rake’s perfectly coiffed and perfumed big city ways, and Rake will do anything to maintain power. An all out war emerges between two, and it ain’t a pretty one.
Hillcoat has again teamed up with iconic musician Nick Cave who has written the screenplay and the score for this film (as he did for The Proposition). What results is some particularly well crafted dialogue- though at times it can be hard to decipher through heavy twang. A banjo-ed up re-imagining of The Velvet Underground classic White Light/White Heat is a standout on the soundtrack. In fact there is a whole host of Australian talent both in front of and behind the camera in this production which is a treat for local audiences.
Shia Labeouf is solid as the young and naïve Jack Bondurant, who must grow up pretty quickly to keep his family afloat. Tom Hardy is memorable as the gruff middle brother Forrest with the rumbling tone who is also the parent figure of the trio. The no-nonsense chemistry between the brothers keeps the film rolling, however we would have loved to have seen more screen time given to the ultimately underdeveloped oldest brother Howard (Jason Clarke).
All this machismo is offset by fine performances from two exceptional female leads filling out colourful female characters. Jessica Chastain is stoic as ex-dancer Maggie. She fled the city to find simpler life but she isn’t going to find it in Franklin County. Starlet Mia Wasikowska brings a sense of softness and play as the young Bertha, who dares rebel against her strict religious upbringing in the Dunkard sect by falling for Jack.
Though beautifully envisioned and finely acted, the trouble with this film is that despite all the action nothing much actually happens, especially nothing that you don’t expect. Though technically impressive, Lawless ends up a bit lost in itself, and that’s a damn shame. This is still worthwhile cinema though, and is especially worth seeing at the theatre to fully take advantage of Hillcoat’s precise framing and beautifully crafted violence.
Defending the American right to get plastered since 1920: Lawless is in cinemas now.
Category: Film & TV