No wonder Cannes didn't warm to John Hillcoat's latest, beyond the simple feeling that it's cut from the crop of Sundance. "Lawless" is the anti-gangster film, at least in that the confident and macho persona that most characters of this film take on is more of a smokescreen for some honestly pathetic human weakness. Don't let the "true story" prestige fool you, as this is much more an adaptation of a novel than it is the story of the Bondurant brothers. Shia Labeouf's commemorative narration gives assurances of that from the beginning, and calls to mind another narrator propelled feature from a year ago, "The Help".
That unlikely feature would go on to Oscar glory, which is more than can be expected from "Lawless". That's not to say that Hillcoat's latest is lacking in comparison. In fact quite the opposite, in much the same way as films like "Drive" and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" were too genre oriented for the Academy's taste. Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave (who also scores the film) are not intent on thrusting the audience into the world of prohibition-era in a rural landscape. This isn't conventionally a history lesson, which would probably pin the film's more exciting inclinations and rob it of a degree of intensity.
The story of the Bondurant brothers is less one of crime leading to corruption, which is often a motif in gangster film, and more a good ol' fashioned success story of a community suddenly thriving. The world the Bondurants live in isn't one of destrution, like meth business of "Breaking Bad", and the fact that the product isn't ruining peoples' lives shifts the dynamic in favor of the outlaws. In an interesting twist, the sociopathic killer of the film is Guy Pearce's government official Charlie Rakes, whose motivation isn't so much what's right. It's to be the big guy on top, no matter who he has to kill to be that.
The Bondurant brothers weren't about to lie down and let the government take the business away from the community. That creates a certain amount of friction between the three brothers, mainly twixt pack leader Forrest, played the confident showmanship of Tom Hardy with a deep southern drawl, and youngest brother Jack, played as per usual by Shia Labeouf. "As per usual" is by no means a dig on the actor, who is actually used to best effect in this film. In the past, Shia's been a point of ridicule for the high pitched screams and crazed stammerings of the "Transformers" films, but here displays him as a character who is actively ridiculed for that aspect.
The dynamic between the three brothers is one of support, but Forrest leans over Jack with doubt over his ability to be a heavy hitter in this business. It is not one without its occupational hazards, and Jack goes into it with an ambition fueled by an early observation of Gary Oldman's Floyd Banner. He sees a kind of idol in him, but Forrest does not believe Jack is built for this line of business. "Look at you, swanderin' around like you're Al Capone," growls Forrest with equal parts concern and misgiving. That dynamic of "being the man" is echoed between Jack and Pearce's Rakes, both of which are quite effeminately drawn to a hilarious degree. The whining of Jack causes a pang in the heart, where as the whining of Rakes just causes animosity.
There's a balance between all this conflict with two sweet romances blooming, neither of which enormously truncates the other. Jack's taking to the preacher's daughter is a sort of "love at first sight" deal, and no wonder. Nearly every establishing shot of Mia Wasikowska as Bertha Minnix is adorable as all hell, peaking with the image of her cradling a baby deer in her arms. Never in a million years did I think I'd be cheering Shia on to "kiss the girl" as remain guilty of whispering (or shouting) in the theater. There's not too much tension in that relationship, nor does there need to be. It's sweet and filled with youthful romanticism.
A more adult romance can be found in Maggie Beauford, played by the ever-lovely and continuously entrancing Jessica Chastain. Given the rise she's had in her career, the stammering indecision by Forrest serves as something of an in joke to those who have seen her prior work. If you haven't, she nonetheless stands on her own two feet with a confidence equaling to Hardy's. As much as there's this magnetic tension between the two of them, there's an equal parts conflict between the two at how far either of them can be bent, emotionally or physically. "Ain't that just like you, to believe your own damn legend," speaks Chastain with fearful anger.
That idea of legend really plays heavily into the ideology of Forrest, a man who thinks himself and his brothers invincible, and you could be forgiven for believing them. The film repeatedly puts these boys through the ringer in ways which would for certain kill any other human being. There's necessity to continue on till morning against all odds that sets Forrest apart, and it repeatedly surprises to the point of active hilarity. Moments of the film are unbelievably intense, to the point where I actually chipped a large portion of my tooth the process. That's not something you tend to ignore, and it made for a distraction in my experience of the film, but also an addition.
In a summer where superheroes have floundered more than flew, "Lawless" serves as something of an unexpected new entry in the genre, if you consider it in the same way as "Drive". It helps to have such a generous ensemble working in the film's favor, and not overly flashy either. Having an actor like Gary Oldman could serve to diminish the talent of some of the film's smaller stars like an effectively full-forced Jason Clarke or the endearingly dopey Dane Dehaan. Oldman is fortunately kept on a leash as a symbol of the stardom going on in the big city, and only has a handful of scenes to establish that. A less prominent actor would have squandered the role, but Oldman makes the most of his short and properly truncated screen time.
Guy Pearce is one likely to divide viewers, as his performance is the kind that flies off the chain, but he is so clearly having a ball with it. Pearce goes against the objective of making him empathetic in the slightest, digging ever deeper into Rakes' extreme brand of cruelty. Quite frankly, it makes for an excellent camp presence. It goes so far off the rails, you wonder if it'll go too far. Director John Hillcoat has a sturdy hold on his cast, knowing when to let each character shine, and when to put them in the background. Sometimes the best character to show off is the richly constructed world the characters inhabit.
Though "Lawless" may not be deemed a major awards player, the production credits are rather highly deserving of the nominations they may very well not receive. Foremost is the rurally compelled production design, from the creaking shacks of the townfolk, to the relatively tidied hotel rooms, it's a thorough achievement. Although rather more likely to be overlooked is the costume design, ranging from Tom Hardy's cardigan-centric ensemble, to Labeouf's ambitious suits, to Chastain's vixens of dress wardrobe. And lest we forget the makeup and hairstyling, worth a nod simply for Guy Pearce's hilariously slicked back hair, but no less for the hatchet jobs of the Bondurant's cuts'. Benoit Delhomme's cinematography may dabble frequently in the simple necessities of each scene, but he relishes in the deeper hues of the color pallete, occasionally contrasting mud brown with night blue.
Nick Cave was advanced to screenwriter on the film, after previously working with Hillcoat on the tonally inconsistent "The Road". Like that film, "Lawless" feels like Joel & Ethan Coen would have had a damn good time with it, and perhaps made a better film. In this case, however, what we got wasn't anything worth slighting. It was the definition of a good time at the theater, not emotionally oppressive, nor seeking to be so. Cave managed to walk the line of character dynamics in a consistently entertaining fashion. A different kind of superhero movie than the rest, "Lawless" tops the summer slate of blockbusters with novelistic ease.