It's been a long road to the big screen for Lawless. Originally slated for release last fall, John Hillcoat and Nick Cave's adaptation of Matt Bondurant's novel "The Wettest County in the World" (which was also the original title of the film) finally screened at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
The original release date and the Cannes showing suggested a more artsy, awards oriented film, but the result is far more accessible than either of Hillcoat's previous directorial efforts (The Proposition, which Cave also wrote, and The Road). Whereas each of those two were heavily thematic mood pieces, Lawless is straightforward entertainment. And what damn fine entertainment it is.
Based in part on actual events, Lawless is the story of three bootlegger brothers, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) in depression and prohibition era Virginia. Jack, the youngest of the three and identified "runt of the litter," aspires to be a full-fledged gangster. He comes to idolize the legendary Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman).
Forrest is an intensely proud, grunting, brooding presence feared to the point that people, including at times Forrest himself, believe him to be immortal. When the Bondurant boys reject a shakedown attempt by local authorities and the crooked Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a violent posture for power ensues.
There's this unsettling atmosphere that exists through much of Lawless that makes the audience feel as if we are always moments away from something bad happening. Despite the fact that this film varies in style from his previous works, Hillcoat has always seemed to have a knack for this type of tension. Naturally, audience expectations don't always come to fruition, but when they do, the results are often quite brutal.
Aiding this tension at its most heightened moments is another brilliant score/soundtrack from Cave and frequent collaborator Warren Ellis. Whether a piece of their always unnerving and haunting score or an odd, yet perfect blues/bluegrass piece (a version of The Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat comes to mind) with the help of legends Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris, the music adds something to nearly every scene.
The cast of Lawless, perhaps the film's biggest draw going in, delivers almost unequivocally. Handling what is certainly the lead role, LaBeouf is strong, despite not being as strong as some of his counterparts. His character ark is familiar for "wanna-be" gangsters, going from the naive and pitiful youngster to the one making cocky, brash decisions that put those around him in danger. An early encounter with Pearce's Rakes puts the audience on Jack's side basically from the get-go: an encounter so brutal it's easier to forgive some of his later actions.
Pearce, as the repulsive (both in action and appearance) crooked lawman is the unquestionable standout amongst worthy performances. He's utterly hate-able, and is the most effective villain I've seen this year. Standing toe-to-toe with Pearce is Hardy, who once again proves himself to be as effective a physical presence as anyone in Hollywood today. He's also a hell of an actor, and a blast to watch.
Nick Cave's screenplay has been the subject of much of Lawless' criticism - some of that criticism is fair, but in large part I think it misses a potentially huge issue. The story is simple and straightforward, with not much deviation. Call it thin, call it lean, call it what you will. Personally, I didn't have an issue with that, and I think the script shined in other places, like some fairly awesome dialogue.
However, I did notice some awkward cuts and scene changes: changes that seemed to take place before the scene was quite over, or changes that left me wondering if something else was supposed to have happened in between. There are also some supporting characters (I immediately think of those played by Jason Clarke and Jessica Chastain) that, while not quite two dimensional, are developed only to the point of necessity.
The reason that I think people should be a bit hesitant before blaming Cave is that the original cut of the film was longer than the theatrical release. It seems entirely possible that those issues were the result of editing to trim run time. Edits that were likely out of Cave's hands. These cuts would also explain why Gary Oldman was only in two brief, yet impactful scenes in the entire film.
I'm also a huge fan of Cave's work as a musician, and might be somewhat of an apologist, so keep that in mind.