John Hillcoat is a Director whose films I anticipate hugely prior to release. Ever since his 2005 ‘Aussie outback western’ The Proposition (penned by Nick Cave) he has moved to the ‘one to watch’ list. His last effort was an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s grim apocalyptic road movie, The Road, and he’s back working with old mucker Cave on his latest film Lawless (originally titled The Wettest County). Based on the book my Matt Bondurant, it tells the story of prohibition bootleggers brewing moonshine in Franklin County, Virginia, and more specifically, the tale of the three Bondurant boys – Jack, Howard and Forrest. Like The Proposition, these three boys are low-down no-gooders with a family hierarchy – Forrest is the head of the family and brains of the operation, Howard is the muscle (perpetually drunk), and Jack, the youngest, is the lackey. Only, one day Jack decides that he’s had enough with being downtrodden and belittled, and manages to cut a lucrative deal with local gangster Floyd Banner, much to the chagrin of his brother Forrest, and this is where things start to get messy for the good ol’ boys.
In a bid to crack down on the illegal importation of alcohol from the south, Chicago PD sends down one of their finest, Charley Rakes, to tackle the moonshine problem and put a stop to the bootleggin’ gangs, lest they pay tax a local fat cat. Guy Pearce gives a career-defining performance here, and his creepy incarnation of Rakes is so squeamish that Hillcoat said his children cried when they saw a picture of him – he looks like a greasy snake in human form. A formidable foe to the Bondurants, even if Hardy and Clarke do out-size him, it’s Pearce’s character that is the movie’s most memorable, and leaves an almost metallic aftertaste in the mouth.
That said, Hardy gives another good turn as the human breeze block Forrest, although his physical appearance was very much a disappointment to Cave, who had written Forrest as a snake-like character – lean, mean and dangerous to know – rather than the luggish brute of Hardy’s portrayal. Forrest is a very slow deliberate character, always pondering before he speaks, and his words linger in the air before they are absorbed. Hardy has the screen presence to carry any shot he’s in, and the fantastic cast around him (Clarke, LaBoeuf, Pearce, Oldman, Chastain) are each worthy of their place in Hillcoat’s modern classic. It’s extremely refreshing to see that Shia LaBouef has pulled away from the usual tripe he does and actually stepped up and delivered a great performance as youngest brother Jack. Unfortunately his awful press recently somewhat taints my opinion of him (revealing he slept with Megan Fox, saying he knocked out Tom Hardy, badmouthing cast etc), but nevertheless, I can’t let that detract from his best performance yet – he finds the perfect balance to portray Jack’s struggle to find his place in this world.
Lawless is one of the most refreshing crime movies in ages, and one that takes the viewer to a very new setting – a backdrop reminiscent of Harlan County in TV’s Justified – a new depiction of the Mid-West, a million miles from the gleam of New York or the haze of LA. Having read the script, I do think it would have been better with Hardy as Howard and someone like Adrian Brody, Michael Fassbender or even (curveball!) Benedict Cumberbatch as the lean snake-like Forrest. We all know Hardy can do brooding and tough, we’ve seen Bronson, Warrior, TDKR etc, but I would love to have seen Cumberbatch’s effort – bet he would have nailed it.
Also, there are quite a few scenes which are scaled down to make an easier shot it seems – a nail-biting climactic car chase in the script is reduced to very little in the film, and does leave you wondering why so many bullets are missing the targets at such short range. Other than minor gripes – including changing the name from The Wettest County – Lawless is, as they would say in Franklin Co., “a damn fine yarn”, and definitely one of the year’s best at that.