originally featured on
Like ‘cowboys and Indians’, the fundamental clash of ‘cops and robbers’ has long fascinated the world of cinema. Hollywood, in particular, found them particularly appealing – the dark and daring exploits of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (stand-ins for real life figures like Al Capone and John Dillinger) devoured by an audience hungry for blood and escapist thrills. Despite the grimness of the Depression, the line between outlaw and celebrity was blurred by the gangster genre flicks, and cinema – like comic books and pulp novels – would never be the same again.
Lawless, set in Virginia, 1931, acts as an untold counterpoint to the better-known exploits of other Depression-era figures. With Bonnie and Clyde’s doomed crime spree, Al Capone’s tax-evasion conviction, and John Dillinger’s fateful cinema screening a handful of years in the future, the film focuses on the story of the Bondurant brothers: three good ’ole country boys (played by Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and Jason Clarke) who monopolised the Franklin racketeering business and made a fortune hawking moonshine. But like all good plans gone bad, their success does not go unnoticed, and soon the boys find themselves between other ‘lawless’ men, all looking to claim a slice of the moonshine pie…
Lawless is the latest collaboration between Australian director John Hillcoat and songwriter/scribe Nick Cave, and while it lacks the visceral virtuosity of The Proposition or the relentless visual horror of Hillcoat’s previous film, The Road, it nonetheless retains hallmarks of both men: moments of brutal, bloody violence; an examination of inarticulate masculinity; and a fascination with the power and creation of myth. Like his outback-set Western, Hillcoat finds moments of identification in the hot summers and parched fields of Virginia, helped in no small part to the number of Australian faces (Guy Pearce, Jason Clarke, Noah Taylor, and Mia Wasikowska among them) that pop up at frequent intervals.
Visually, the film is flat and indistinct, with muted colours that give it a televisual appearance. Oftentimes, the frank framing and workmanlike camera movements make the film feel like a condensed, rural-themed episode of ‘Boardwalk Empire’, and while the costumes and cars are lovingly rendered in perfect period detail, the approach feels cinematically underwhelming. Nick Cave’s script, too, feels pared back and thin, lacking the dark poetry and style of The Proposition. Based on a mostly non-fiction book by Matt Bondurant (grandson of Jack Bondurant), Cave struggles to find a tone and narrative drive for the material, and its shortcomings are best chalked up to his inexperience with adaptation. This lack of snap and crackle also bolsters the made-for-TV vibe.
While the vision of both director and writer may be unexpectedly subdued, it does leave space for some surprisingly bold performances. Shia LaBeouf, usually known as Transformer cannon fodder, is surprisingly competent as Jack Bondurant, the more reluctant of the bootlegging brothers. His transformation from boy to man is energetic and engaging. Tom Hardy gets to act with his whole face this time around, and while no less verbally challenged than Bane, uses his lack of perspicacity to charming effect. Guy Pearce ramps up the eccentric camp as a sadistic corrupt lawman, while Gary Oldman gets to return to his nefarious ways in an extended cameo as real-life gangster, Floyd Banner. Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are luminous in the truest Hollywood sense, both impeccably dressed and tailored in sumptuous period detail.
While proving a dramatic departure in style and tone for both writer and director, Lawless succeeds in fostering strong performances from an eclectic ensemble cast, and punctuating its unconventional true-crime story with moments of genuine reflection and sudden violence. More so than in previous films, Hillcoat and Cave find the fun in their subjects, and together add an entertaining, if minor, entry to the cinema canon of the ‘Great American Gangster’ flick.