John Hillcoat and Nick Cave are the duo behind 2005’s deconstructionist western The Proposition and 2009’s dark, moody adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning The Road. These two films perfectly blend Hillcoat’s direction with Cave’s music and words. I list both on my top ten favorite films of all time. I’m listening to Cave’s The Proposition score as I write this. For my money, they are classics. Never has a duo done so consistently well at conveying the trials of men in worlds of pure violence. What happens when morality, fraternity and duty are thrown against the stark contrast of life and death?
Lawless is the story of three bootlegging brothers in 1930s prohibition Virginia. Forrest, Howard, and Jack Bondurant are each of different temperaments. Forrest (Tom Hardy) is a brawler and the leader of their operation. Howard (Jason Clarke) is a drunk, less refined but no less brutal than his older brother. Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the baby of the family, who wants to prove himself to his brothers and make a fat stack of cash doing it. The three are locally renowned and without much opposition — until FBI agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives on the scene to put an end to their freewheeling ways.
Violence is key in all of Hillcoat and Cave’s collaborations and, in a way, it speaks to the weaknesses of Lawless. In previous films, violence is fundamental. It is the background noise to other thematic concerns. In Lawless, it is a theme rather than a setting. Its continued prominence, then, throws the film off balance and results in a muddled sense of purpose. Are we supposed to root for a young man to become a violent outlaw? Do we want peace or war? Who, ultimately, should be made to suffer in this little myth?
Although the spine of Lawless is weak, it is braced by an unparalleled cast. Hardy, Clarke and LaBeouf all shine in their roles. They’re joined by Jessica Chastain (as Maggie), an actress for whom I have growing admiration, and Mia Wasikowska, with whom I was previously not familiar. Rounding out the cast is Gary Oldman hamming it up as a Tommy-toting Mobster and Pearce doing his very best at creating a memorable villain. He, in particular, oozes with a sense of controlled and stylish evil. He mixes and matches traits from the recent flood of fantastic villains — Chigurh, Joker, Landa — in a role deserving an Oscar nod.
The presence of stronger female roles is a major spoiler to Hillcoat & Cave’s traditional mixture of men and violence. In a way, this is the strength of Lawless. The relationships between the brothers and the women in their lives are dramatic events that nonetheless create a more whole reality for “Lawless.” The presence of Maggie broadens the perspective thematically and emotionally, not to mention Chastain and Wasikowska’s excellent performances. Lawless is more approachable, more emotionally whole than Hillcoat and Cave’s other films.
Lawless is a marriage of history of myth, ambiance and visceral violence — a good but not great film, and a more human and accessible tale than Hillcoat Cave’s previous collaborations.