The last time Nick Cave and John Hillcoat made a film together, it was the brutal, lyrical Australian western The Proposition. They’ve relocated to American South for this adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s book “The Wettest County in the World”, the story of three bootlegging brothers in Prohibition Louisiana.
The Bondurant boys are notorious in Franklin County. They make the best moonshine, they’ve got an arrangement with the law, and there’s even a legend that they cannot be killed. But when Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives with the intention of making things run his way, the boys find themselves up against it.
While The Proposition relocated the Western and stripped it down to its harsh, savage elements, Lawless finds Cave and Hillcoat settling a little more comfortably into genre conventions. While it’s often brutally violent and there’s a pitch black sense of humour, it’s (for the most part) playing by the rules. There’s not one but two romances, there’s the youngest brother fighting to prove himself, and there’s the slow realisation that a life of crime isn’t as glamorous as you might think. But although Lawless might cleave a little too close to these staples, it does so with a lot of skill.
There’s the well-played dynamic between the three brothers. Jack (Shia LaBoeuf) is the youngest and is eager to make his mark on the family business with forward thinking. The problem is that he’s not made of the same stuff as his elder brothers. Howard (Jason Clarke) is the hard-drinking muscle, while Forrest (Tom Hardy) acts as the head of the family (with no less muscle). These are familiar types, but the three leads are on good form and their chemistry is spot-on. There are also strong performances from the underused Mia Wasikowska as Jack’s love-interest Bertha (the local preacher’s daughter) and Jessica Chastain (a mysterious refugee from Chicago), who makes one of the film’s strongest impressions as the strong but haunted Maggie who’s drawn to Forrest.
The romances are convincing and affecting while never being particularly surprising. Chastain is at her best when confronting violence, which, somehow predictably, is also when the film’s at its best. Hillcoat chooses not to linger on these moments, but there’s no doubting their brutality. A sequence in which Rakes gives Jack a beating is brutally believable, but it’s Hardy’s scenes that will have you squirming in your seat.
The most memorable creation in Lawless, though, is Pearce’s odious Rakes. It’s the actor’s third film with Hillcoat and he clearly feels comfortable enough to deliver this bizarre character. Rakes is a vicious, misanthropic germaphobe who, with his savagely parted hair, pale skin, suit and bowtie, and lack of eyebrows looks like a vampiric ventriloquist’s dummy, contrasting with Hardy’s monosyllabic, grunting “country boy”. Whenever the film threatens to slip into predictability, Pearce’s off-kilter turn keeps us on our toes.
There are times when Hillcoat seems a little cautious, which leads to a mixture of touchstones. He’s always interested in the cultural and historical significance of the period, and there’s an acknowledgement of the Western migration of the dustbowl era. But it’s not meditative enough to be compared to The Assassination of Jesse James, while much too interested in character for Public Enemies comparisons. Instead, Lawless is an undeniably entertaining and often viscerally exciting period crime drama with an excellent cast and a brilliant soundtrack (a version of White Light, White Heat deserves special mention).
It doesn’t match up to their first outing, but Hillcoat and Cave deliver a highly entertaining, often touching, and frequently violent Prohibition family drama.