Westerns yet not westerns happen to be something of a speciality around the EBFS offices (Ha!), Assault on Precinct Thirteen, History of Violence, First Blood and quite a lot of The Getaway all take themes and tropes from the genre and transpose them to other locations successfully. The Proposition moved the action to colonial Australia and that film was written by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat. Now they’ve teamed up again, shifted over to America in the prohibition locked thirties and set the whole thing in a big forest….
Adapted from the novel “The Wettest County in the West” by Cave, Lawless recounts the legend of the Bondurant Boys, three moonshiners in Virginia who fought a bloody and personal war with the law over their right to sell alcohol. That the book has been written by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of Jack Bondurant, lends Lawless an odd air of authenticity.
Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBoeuf) is a fairly unappealing character, his narrative journey (just threw up a little) taking him from cowardly and stupid all the way to brave and stupid. It’s interesting to see LaBoeuf keep his head high with all the heavy-hitters surrounding him, he handles his scenes admirably, shows some lovely sparks of boyish charm with Mia Wasikowska, takes a very savage beating well and gets the girl in the end.
Howard Bondurant is the slightly crazy, really drunk Bondurant brother played by Jason Clarke with a frizzy haired, carelessly manic grin and a quick temper, only happy when drinking more moonshine than he is selling and more than happy to carry out Forrest’s orders to keep his supplies up. Which brings us to Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy, slightly, but only slightly, more intelligible than in his previous film), a hulking, grunting slab of a man and the closest thing this pseudo-western has to a “man with no name” figure. Legendary to the people of Franklin County and beyond, feared and respected about equally and possessed of the desire to do what is necessary to protect his family and it’s business by any means, including genital torture (EBFS’ top 5 films where bad things happen to penises: Mississippi Burning, Sin City, The World According to Garp, Teeth and now this.), he’s brutally pragmatic basically. Hardy plays him with intensity and a lot of knitwear for which he should be applauded. Elsewhere, Gary Oldman is used sparingly as a gang boss, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are both absolutely fine in roles which, sadly, could have been lifted out and not one jot of difference would’ve been made. Lawless is a man’s film, set in a man’s world and it’s both unfortunate and unwise to shoehorn in such underdeveloped characters for what feels like box ticking by Cave and Hillcoat.
Most interestingly of all, nearly stealing the whole film, is Guy Pearce’s portrayal of Charlie Rakes, a priggishly sadistic, dandy cop from Chicago charged with enforcing Prohibition in Franklin County. With his perfect centre parting, his nose high in the air, his immaculate clothes and reedy, upper class accent, Pearce strays very close to the Jon Voigt in Anaconda line of Hammy theatrics but never quite falls over it. Instead, we are treated to an over the top, scenery chewing show as Pearce uses torture, murder and plenty of intimidation to try and bring the Bondurant boys under his well-shoed heel.
There is so much to enjoy here, lush cinematography, beautiful performances, excellently handled, uncomfortable scenes of violence, Tom Hardy in a cardigan, it’s a shame to report that Lawless is a flawed gem, nearly fatally so. An attempt to paint people willing to castrate to gain revenge as heroes, victimised by John Q Law was always going to be tough and Lawless comes nowhere near to pulling that trick off. Having Tom Hardy grunt lines about honour and family isn’t enough when he’s standing over a bloody, still living man tied to a chair. Showing that hey, cops can be bad too doesn’t count either, only serving to muddy the waters further. In the end we are left with a story with no one to root for desperately trying to hoodwink us into supporting these torturers and murderers over here but not those torturers and murderers over there. Couple that with two of the most pointless female characters imaginable, a dodgy, Dukes of Hazardy montage in the middle and an ending that overstays it’s welcome AND feels unbelievable (no matter if it’s true) and Lawless is hanging by a thread…. Perhaps, rather than borrowing from the western, Cave had instead looked to the noir, a genre containing truth and criminals aplenty, Lawless wouldn’t have felt so disappointingly contrived and not a little forced.