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Lawless is so, so violent that I spent the majority of the 115-minute film clutching my throat, and an unspeakable amount of time post-credits obsessively researching the effects of hot tar. Naturally, it’s a fantastic movie.
If you’re a fan of The Proposition, as I am, it’s not much of a stretch to consider Lawless a very fitting continuation of that 2005 film’s themes, imagery and score, because director John Hillcoat reassembled the same team in the composers (Nick Cave and Warren Ellis), cinematographer (Benoit Delhomme), writer (Cave again) and even some of the actors (Guy Pearce, Noah Taylor). Add that both films grapple with the intricacies of relationships between brothers, outlaws in an untamed setting, visceral and vicious brutality and, well, the comparisons are plenty.
However, unlike The Proposition, which boasts an original screenplay penned by Cave, Lawless is adapted from Matt Bondurant’s historical novel The Wettest County in the World, which he wrote about the real-life plights of his grandfather and great-uncles during Prohibition in Franklin County, Virginia. Juxtaposed with the violence of the cities, we’re given a glimpse of bootlegging activity on the outskirts of town, where the Bondurant family reigns supreme, enjoying the favor of local sheriffs and residents alike – that is, until a ruthless special deputy swoops in from Chicago in an attempt to wield all the power. While certain moments of the film touch upon the bustling life outside Franklin County, most of it is set within the bubble of the Bondurants’ world – making us as protective of its precarious balance as the brothers themselves.
As with The Proposition, Hillcoat assembles a stellar cast – namely, Shia LaBeouf as the youngest, most naive Bondurant brother Jack, Tom Hardy as Forrest Bondurant, the silent but steady brains of the operation, and Jason Clarke as Howard Bondurant, the trio’s brawn. The three could not more perfectly embody their roles. Speaking as someone who generally dislikes LaBeouf, his position as the unruly, overly ambitious and tortured runt of the litter is rightfully endowed, but he also imparts an inner agony to his expressions — the sad look of a dog kicked around a few too many times — that lends brilliantly to his character’s arc. This is also another definitive Hardy performance, seemingly the culmination of many characters prior — the physical prowess and quiet menace of Tommy Conlon in Warrior, the quirky charm of Ricki Tar in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the wacky voice intonations and off-kilter delivery of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Hardy rules the Bondurant household with a cigar in hand, wearing a wool cardigan and grunting — even, at times, emitting grizzly-like growls — in place of whole sentences. It’s a performance that teeters on the edge of caricature, but Hardy reins it in just enough, creating a character that is wholly unique and memorable, implicitly lovable while also terrifying.
Guy Pearce again absolutely kills it under Hillcoat’s direction, this time as Chicago-bred antagonist Special Deputy Charlie Rakes. He’s all tailored attire, dyed slicked-back hair, nonexistent eyebrows and sharp delivery; he doesn’t need to do much to prove a threat. Pearce’s is a performance of carefully measured intricacies, and it’s one of the year’s best. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska also hold their own among the men as Forrest and Jack’s love interests, respectively. Where other actresses might slink back into the scenery, these two project a strong, faceted presence. The one small complaint is that Gary Oldman, as infamous outlaw Floyd Banner, could’ve used more screen time, although he formidably laps up what he’s given, as always. The convergence of all these performances is an atmosphere of true risk; it’s difficult not to care about the brothers and the threat to their world, rendering the intermittent violence wholly necessary.
The visuals and score are magnificently arresting, with cinematographer Delhomme channels greats like Conrad Hall, Roger Deakins and Terrence Malick’s DP Emmanuel Lubezki, entrenching you within rural Virginia using impeccably framed establishing wide shots, playing with focus during action sequences and emphasizing elements of nature. You can almost smell the moonshine bubbling, the smoke from chimneys and the lush greenery of Virginia’s forests. One sequence shot in silhouette is particularly hard to shake; the imagery is as inspired as the on-screen emotion. Cave and Ellis’ score adds to the haunting, transportational effect woven by the film — vocal-laden hymns, minor-strewn chords and notes of traditional Southern twang are strung throughout. Like their previous work scoring The Proposition, 2009’s The Road and, my favorite, 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, their compositions resonate long after the credits roll. I’ve already added the Lawless score to my collection.
Lawless combines historical drama, gangster-movie elements, another incredible collaboration between Hillcoat and Cave and a brilliant cast into a well-paced, beautifully produced, emotionally resonant story. This is one of those films that expertly balances entertainment and intrigue, providing a great reminder — after an intermittently bleak, oft-lackluster summer season — as to why we go to the movies.
Lawless opens today nationwide.