Production on Lawless is an underdog’s story. A good book turned into a solid script with the talent attached falls apart when investors back out. It makes a comeback and becomes a darling at Cannes, the Weinstein brothers rescue it from its plight. The Weinsteins might be risky investors, but this is a business after all. They’ve hedged their bets by picking up a film with a fan-base–albeit a literary–and guaranteed performances from A-listers Shia Labeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, and Guy Pearce. Tack on two auteurs who are masters in the genre — Nick Cave and John Hillcoat — with a proven track record, and it sounds like a pretty safe bet. And Lawless is, despite its moniker, is a pretty safe venture and unfortunately a stale viewing experience as par for the course.
Lawless suffers, mostly, from a weak script by Nick Cave. Yes, that Nick Cave… who since his 2008 film Proposition has been straddling projects as both screenwriter and music supervisor with cohort Warren Ellis. And like Proposition, his new film is ripe with the kind of inspired violence he’s known for, which is likely why he was selected to adapt the 2008 bestseller The Wettest Country by John Bondurant. The story surrounds three brothers protecting their mutual and personal interests from backwards lawmen against the historical backdrop of the Prohibition. Love, barbarism and drinking ensues.
Cave, in a recent interview called this the “lyricism of violence” which is dictated by the tone of the music and pacing which presents a kinder, more intimate moment, followed by a forceful, visual knockout. But he’s admitted having apprehensions concerning the verisimilitude of the material itself. And this discord shows. The shooting script is scattershot; it’s a kind of narrative “best of” that selects with misguided discretion from the book, and might be just a little too respectful of the original material, oftentimes borrowing entire passages verbatim. How did Hillcoat tackle the dense, lyricism of the script? Well, he didn’t help. He attempts a balancing act between the more emotive moments, in the editing, dictated by a beautiful score and kodachrome-like processing from Benoit Delhomme and story. The result is sometime gratuitous coverage and weirdly paced editing that makes even the best moments of the script fall flat.
And this is unfair to a group of actors that have demonstrated emotional depth. Hardy is reduced to a grunting brick, who is a victim to circumstances surrounding him but not vulnerable in a way that could have likened his performance to Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. And what should be Chastain’s strongest scene with Hardy following her rape, feels so short, stilted and formulaic in its shot design that the result is an emotionally neutered scene. This demonstrates a lack of communication between Benoit and Hillcoat who are undeniable talents on their own, but lackluster as a team.
Oldman plays Floyd Banner, the husband of a moonshine-buyer who is hardly mentioned in the book. Though his screentime is brief, each return is part of an amazing character arc. Oldman
carries the tone of the story best, making deals and shaking hands, then lashing out in violence against his own seemingly at random and creates a tension for future dealings with the Bondurants. Guy Pearce
, however, is the central, but less compelling villain who looks a bit like Mr. Slugworth without the specs. Pearce
plays an eccentric FBI agent in white gloves–his canned flamboyance is marked by trademarked racism and underlying sexual insecurity. Even as he snaps young Cricket’s neck in a revealing close-up, we’re unaffected by his intensity. Jason Clarke
is a bit underserved, playing the family muscle, but we should keep an eye on him, noting that he is able to play such a part with a great degree of subtlety. And then there’s the ageless Mia Wasikowska
who plays the part of a sheltered, china-doll with her lips stained by cherry soda as the young Bondurant’s first love. What she has to work with is limited, but what’s most remarkable are her dresses and makeup.
That being said, she’s little more than furniture in the film. Make-up is exceptional throughout, including some nice touches to both Forrest’s scars and Jack’s bloody eye after being beat up. The sound design creates a great tapestry of the outdoors, cicadas rising to almost unbearable volume, and the sound of snowfall being effectively used to support the overall tone. These technical elements and Benoit Delhomme contribution should not be understated. Overall, however, the dense and poorly organized story cannot compare.
Set in the Depression-era Franklin County, Virginia, a bootlegging gang is threatened by authorities who want a cut of their profits.