Not that many people saw John Hillcoat and Nick Cave’s 2006 collaboration The Proposition, but those that did are never likely to forget it. A suffocating but frequently brilliant combination of poetic dialogue, arid Australian landscapes, gritty performances from the creme de la creme of English and Australian actors (and Danny Huston) and a memorably weird Cave-Warren Ellis score, it’s one of the most distinctive and unusual pieces of cinema released in the last few years.
Their subsequent collaboration (if we discount the Cormac McCarthy adaptation of The Road, which Cave merely co-scored) Lawless offers up a similar brew, albeit in a more accessible register. Again, the setting is an obscure location, here the backwaters of America in the Prohibition (cue Tommy guns and old-school cars), where the legendary Bondurant brothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and the ‘runt of the litter’ Jack (Shia LaBeouf) work in the thriving black-market industry of moonshine liquor production. This is tolerated by the complicit forces of law and order, until ‘Special Deputy’ Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a pressingly vicious sadist, arrives on the scene with the aim of making the Bondurants’ life very difficult. Matters soon escalate, bloodily.
As with The Proposition, the level of violence here is impressively high for a mainstream film. No doubt Hillcoat and Cave, if questioned why, would shrug and say it represents a violent time. However, I can see this being an issue for many audiences, as, to a lesser extent, is the rather one-dimensional portrayal of the two main female characters, Jessica Chastain’s girl-with-a-past and Mia Wasikowska’s love interest for Jack. Set against these issues is a rip-roaringly exciting thriller, with superb performances by a fine cast (including Gary Oldman in a tasty cameo as Chicago gangster Floyd Banner) and superbly staged shoot-outs and confrontations.
The two stand-out actors here are Hardy and Pearce. Hardy, consolidating what’s already been an excellent last 12 months with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Dark Knight Rises, is broodingly charismatic in a Brando-esque fashion as the leader of the brothers, a man whose strength and rumoured immortality are undercut with an unexpected delicacy, even sweetness. He’s up against one of the great screen grotesques in Pearce’s eyebrow-less Special Agent, a hilariously refined man who nevertheless takes enormous pleasure in inflicting pain. It’s tempting to assume that his character is the result of a close collaboration between actor, writer and director, so vividly is he realised. His first set-to with LaBeouf (never better) shows what lies ahead, and he’s a force to be reckoned with.
So, all in all, this excellent film – complete with fine soundtrack by Cave, Ellis and various apposite covers of sometimes unlikely songs – is hugely enjoyable fare, provided that you can stomach it. And the ending is especially lovely, an unusual little coda that’s a wryly enjoyable reversal of the ‘happily ever after’ formula of so many of these films.