John Hillcoat’s LAWLESS – like his previous film THE ROAD – is less concerned with conventional narrative devices and momentum and more with atmosphere, presence and mood; lucky for Hillcoat (as well as screenwriter Nick Cave), he’s got one hell of a knack for creating compelling, captivating atmosphere.
Based on the true story of the Bondurant brothers – and adapted from their descendant’s historical fiction novel, THE WETTEST COUNTY IN THE WORLD – LAWLESS recounts the tale of how the brothers rose to be titans of the moonshine business during Prohibition, and how they went to war with the forces who sought to destroy them.
Hillcoat’s style of direction here should feel familiar to anybody who saw his last film, THE ROAD: his films have begun to seem increasingly like meditations on various topics, rather than anything more narratively traditional. In spite of the film’s classical approach to momentum – there are no scenes that exist outside of the context of the characters’ arcs, and each addresses what has come immediately before and what will come immediately afterwards – there is a certain ethereal disposition to the progression of LAWLESS; characters float from scene to scene, reacting internally to what has become before, rather than externally. In this way, Hillcoat imbues the narrative with a certain detached momentum, abandoning narrative through-lines for arc-based ones.
But the true victory of this film isn’t in its atypical approach to narrative, but rather in its terrific cast. There is not a single actor in this film that wasn’t cast to absolute perfection. Even the smaller roles of Cricket Pate (played by Dane DeHaan, who had his breakout role as the tortured Andrew earlier this year in CHRONICLE) and, surprisingly, Gary Oldman’s Floyd Banner (one gets the feeling that a large portion of his performance is on the cutting room floor) resonate deeply with the viewer simply because of how exquisitely well they are portrayed by their respective thespians.
DeHaan in particular emerges as a bright spot in the film, despite his extremely minimal screen time. It’s obvious that this kid has a big future ahead of him if he plays his cards right, and by picking up projects like this and the upcoming PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, it sounds like he is. Oldman is also impressive in spite of his handful of appearances throughout the film, simply because of the incredible presence that he brings to the proceedings: when you introduce the great Gary Oldman inexplicably gunning down supposed mob rivals in cold blood with a tommy gun, you feel that character in the back of your mind for the rest of the runtime.
But presence is really what the entire film boils down to. Shia LaBeouf was born to play parts like Jack Bondurant, ones made up of equal measures simmering rage and youthful innocence. His arc is one of the most compelling of the film, as Hillcoat and Cave never try to peg him into any one category. It’s obvious from the beginning that his exuberance, recklessness and general eagerness is his primary character motivation, but they never simplify that characteristic to one of inevitable tragedy; Jack succeeds as often as he fails because of it, and that makes his actions unpredictable and the consequences even less so. Jason Clarke’s Howard Bondurant is similarly explosive, but he’s given significantly less to do than the other brothers, pulling a memorable performance out of an underwritten role.
Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce, of course, steal the show. Hardy is, without question, one of the most memorable presences working in Hollywood today, and he has more expression in his right eyebrow than many actors do in their entire bodies. It’s almost impossible to believe that INCEPTION’s Eames and LAWLESS’ Forrest (not to mention THE DARK KNIGHT RISES’ Bane) are played by the same person – Hardy has become a complete chameleon, and his flamboyant and eccentric performances in the last two Nolan films bear absolutely no resemblance to the quiet, smouldering one that he offers here. Saying more with a muffled grunt or a whispered, fractured sentence than the other characters say with entire monologues, Hardy is worth the price of admission alone. He’s had a damn good couple of years, and he’s becoming one of the most diverse and dynamic actors working in Hollywood.
Guy Pearce, on the other hand, is the perfect counterpoint to the simmering Hardy. Playing the impossibly flamboyant Charlie Rakes with ham-fisted glee, Pearce offers a scene-stealing turn in a film full of scene-stealing actors. His mocking politeness – punctuated by bursts of explosive violence – makes him a serious wild card in the narrative, and you never know just what he’s capable of or what he might try at any one moment. His perfectly groomed, Depression-era swagger is laughably extreme in the best way possible, and if he weren’t so alternately hilarious and terrifying, it wouldn’t work. But it does, and it does because of Pearce’s terrific grasp of the material.
Needless to say – and without spoiling anything – the climactic sequence is a tour de force of characterization, acting and direction, with one of the most elegantly staged final showdowns of the year. Hillcoat doesn’t pull any punches, and assuming that he stuck close to the Bondurants’ true story, he did the moonshiners a great service in depicting them in the film.