Lawless

(MA) Roadshow DVD/BD

Australian director John Hillcoat has made a career out of exploring the underbelly of humanity. The Proposition and The Road (his first American feature) examined the savagery, ferocity and lawlessness of a world without a moral compass.

With Lawless, set in a violent Prohibition era of bootlegging and crime, Hillcoat hasn’t strayed from his customary subject matter.

Based on the 2008 book, The Wettest County in the World — by Matt Bondurant, grandson of one of the story’s main characters — Hillcoat’s film depicts the true 1920s-30s lives of the infamous Bondurant brothers from Franklin County, Virginia.

Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) are making a living parting those willing to buy the trio’s black market goods from their hard-earned cash.

Their fortunes change with the arrival of Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). As was the case during Prohibition, Rakes is on the take and the most lawless of all. A psychotic, bloodthirsty villain in a pinstriped suit, Rakes fixes to take the brothers down.

There are really no surprises in this film and you get much of the story and its beats from the trailer. It’s in the performances (particularly Pearce’s) that the film really hits its home runs and are what create the film’s foreboding sense of the inevitable.

Sadly, as is often the case in these sorts of films, if there are females in the cast they are underused. This is a shame because Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska really make the most of their under-written roles. Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf are also excellent. However, it’s Guy Pearce that drives the plot and it’s worth noting that he worked with Hillcoat on The Proposition so there is obviously some director/actor connection happening there.

Pearce is a slithering and menacing villain, all crazy eyes and throbbing forehead. And he definitely embodies the lawlessness of the title.

The tension between moral structure and lawlessness is played out in the character of Jack, the “innocent” Bondurant who flirts with corruption. In one scene, Jack stumbles, drunk, into what appears to be an Amish church where a foot-washing service is taking place. His girlfriend, the sweet Bertha (Wasikowska), washes his feet, but Jack can’t take it. He breaks into sweats, vomits in the church, and runs out shoeless. This pious act causes so much high anxiety it is palpable. It’s as if Hillcoat is asking the question: Where does God fit into this animalistic and lawless world?

Don’t expect these thoughts to be explored too well amid the bloody violence and intense action. However, with music by Nick Cave (who also scored The Proposition) and camera work that constantly emphasises tension, this is a taught thriller driven by excellent performances.

Adrian Drayton

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