Lawless (The Weinstein Company, R)

film lawless_smLawless is John Hillcoat’s best feature film to date, showing his talents as a director more than any of his previous films have.

film lawless

I like John Hillcoat’s movies well enough (at this point, he’s best known for 2005’s The Proposition and 2009’s The Road), but by far the best work he’s done to date is the music video for the Grinderman track “Heathen Child,” which I’d go so far as to say is probably the best music video of the past decade. Grinderman is one of Nick Cave’s many projects, and Cave and Hillcoat have an established working relationship. Alongside Warren Ellis (violin player of both Cave’s backup band the Bad Seeds as well as Dirty Three), Cave has written the score to both of Hillcoat’s aforementioned movies, and even wrote the screenplay to The Proposition.

Hillcoat’s new film, Lawless, reteams them in a similar fashion: Hillcoat is directing one of Cave’s scripts (this time based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant), and Cave and Ellis are writing the score. And while the end result isn’t as good as that “Heathen Child” music video, suffice it to say that Lawless is Hillcoat’s best feature film to date, and does a better job of showing his talents as a director than any of his previous films have.

Lawless is based on the true story of the Bondurant family, who were very successful moonshiners back in the Prohibition era. As one would expect of a Hillcoat/Cave film, though, there’s plenty of moodiness and violence; it feels closer in tone to a gangster film than any other genre. The Bondurants are made up primarily of the invincible Forrest (Tom Hardy, big from his turn as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises), who is at once the brains and the brawn of the family; his less-firm little brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf), through whose perspective the story is primarily told; and oldest brother Howard (Jason Clarke), a war vet. There are tons of supporting players, from love interests (Mia Wasikowska as preacher’s daughter Bertha, and Jessica Chastain as new-to-town Maggie), bad guys (Guy Pearce as the effeminate Special Deputy Charlie Rakes), legends (Gary Oldman’s Floyd Banner), hangers-on (Dane DeHaan as Jack’s buddy Cricket), and many more.

You might have noticed that, for what is essentially a small-budget indie film, Lawless has a pretty big-time Hollywood cast. Happily, everyone in it is well deployed. I’ve been standing up for LeBeauf for years when people complain about how much he sucks—he showed a lot of promise as a child actor, but has unfortunately become known over the past decade for taking the most annoying roles in the most annoying Hollywood movies. For perhaps the first time in his adult life, though, LaBeouf is solid here, and hopefully this turn will keep me out of arguments in the future. Hardy is more a presence here than he was in Dark Knight Rises, though admittedly I wasn’t near the fan of that film that most people seemed to be. Regardless, he’s a pretty credible smart tough who can’t seem to be killed. And while the characters of Bertha, Maggie, and Charlie Rakes are written fairly generically, Wasikowska, Chastain, and Pearce, respectively, make them all memorable and well-rounded characters, or as much as they can be.

Meanwhile, Benoît Delhomme’s shooting of the Georgia’s countryside is reminiscent of the good work Roger Deakins has done in the past, and, despite an arguably too-noticeable reliance on caricature, Cave’s script is well paced and generally a lot of fun. Perhaps the best praise I can give the film, though, is that it’s of the sort where I wasn’t really interested in the subject matter going in, but by the time the film was over, I certainly was. If this type of movie is what results from Hillcoat and Cave’s working relationship, I hope that it lasts for a long time to come. | Pete Timmermann

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