Recently retitled Lawless from The Wettest County in the World, the title it originally took from the source novel by Matt Bondurant, the latest from John Hillcoat and Nick Cave is a solidly told tale of moonshiners in depression-era Franklin County and is based on the real life (mis)adventures of the Bondurant brothers. Here played by Tom Hardy, Shia LeBouf and Jason Clarke, the brothers become conduits for writer Nick Cave to explore a number of ideas surrounding masculinity and the idea of ‘becoming a man’. At the centre is LeBouf as Jack Bondurant, described by the deliciously villainous Special Agent Rakes (Guy Pearce) as the “runt of the litter”, and Jack’s efforts to move out from behind the shadow of his older brother Forrest (Hardy). He also begins take over the moonshining business in the process, just as the law begins to crack down on illegal distilleries.
Concurrent to this central story of protagonist Jack taking over the business, growing up and also courting the daughter of a minister, Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska) are a number of side stories involving Jessica Chastain as Maggie, a love interest for Forrest, Gary Oldman relishing the menacing role of Chicago crime boss Floyd Banner and the aforementioned Rake who sweeps into town and causes all manner of problems. The script from Nick Cave is near flawless in the way in which it threads these strands together and in addition to the punctuations of violence and the brooding menace throughout he also manages to find time for occasional moments of levity.
The various performances are all of an incredibly high standard, with some perhaps more inspired pieces of casting but others representing actors rising up to a reach a high bar. Shia LeBouf is the biggest surprise though, finally proving that he is worthy of the attention and roles he has so far received. Until this point there has been little that has positioned him particularly far beyond his early roles, such as the overly wisecracking star of kids TV show Even Stevens, but in Lawless LeBouf is something of a revelation. A smart script affords him the opportunity to grow and evolve on screen, displaying a number of different characteristics and deal with a variety of different types of scenes. Hardy is also great as the mumbling, grunting and, as the myth in the film tells it, indestructible Forrest and the supporting turns from the likes of Wasikowska, Pearce, Oldman and Chastain help make this confined but almost sprawling crime drama all the more compelling.
John Hillcoat’s unfussy and unstylised direction may come across as a little too effortless or even flat to some but is something of a relief to see a director approach incredibly solid material, in this case Cave’s script, and instead of bathe it stylistic ticks and bravura show-boating, to simply service the story in an effective manner with smart filmmaking choices. The only time when a sense of possibly obtrusive style rears its head is in a couple of soundtrack choices, period sounding versions of more modern songs, but these do nothing to really interfere too greatly and the others choices of folk songs and the score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are for the most part highly effective and at times even sublime.
The only issue that the film really has is unfortunately in the set dressing, costume design and prop making, which fails to convince at times with almost everything appearing as if it has just been placed on set or on location. There is little sense that anything is lived in – an impressive shot of a dust cloud begs the question, where is all the dust? – or even at times of that period but luckily this does not distract too much from one becoming immersed in what is a fascinating tale well told with absolute skill and class.