Lawless cements the mainstreaming of an original. Compare director John Hillcoat's latest to the standard set by The Proposition, an uncompromisingly bleak and ultraviolent outback western: Both films were written by musician Nick Cave, and both films tell a tale of one violent family pitted against the forces of institutional corruption as well as each other. In the balance, Lawless winds up feeling, well, toothless.
Based on true events that occurred in Franklin County, Virginia, in the 1930s, Lawless is a period crime film along the lines of Michael Mann's superior Public Enemies, a film that actually does tweak the legends it depicts, rather than just mealy mouth some random dialogue meant to give that impression. Moonshine bootleggers the Bondurant brothers have encouraged the legend that they are invincible. A war is brewing that will put that legend to the test—a war between a local politicians who wants to rationalize and organize the illegal distilleries of the region and the Bondurants, who want no part of it, rugged individualists to the bitter end that they are.
So far, so standard: There's precious little in Lawless's narrative arc that will remain memorable 10 minutes after you walk out of the theater. The designated expendable character gets croaked. The Big Bad gets his in the end. The theme of violent propensities, introduced in a flashback prologue wherein youngest brother Jack can't bring himself to shoot a pig, finds its “proper” resolution when Jack shoots down the man who shot his brothers. Where, you have to wonder, is the critical edge, that essential distance between the violent act and its ugly consequences? A film like A History of Violence insists on keeping it front and center, even as it feeds the viewer all the graphic kills any self-respecting gorehound could ask for. Instead, Lawless wallows unthinkingly in its bloodshed, offering in its defense only the pat, tagline-ready quote: “Violence isn't what separates men. It's how far you're willing to go.”
Still, Lawless isn't entirely without its pleasures. Benoit Delhomme's cinematography is strikingly captures kudzu-strangled woods and sudden snowfalls, and the period detail is always impressively rendered. The soundtrack brings the Americana. Ralph Stanley's gravelly presence on an a cappella track conjures up O Brother, Where Are Thou? in more ways than one, but a twangy cover of the Velvet Underground's “White Light/White Heat” is a nice touch. Performances run the gamut. Tom Hardy, with his sub-vocal grunts, glowers his way through the role of eldest brother Forrest, while Shia LaBeouf is in full-on Witwitky mode again as youngest brother Jack, getting his face bashed in and fumbling around like an idiot until his redemptive final act of violence. Guy Pearce fares better as Charley Rakes, an anal-retentive villain straight out of Dick Tracy. Jessica Chastain feels wasted in the role of Maggie, a dancehall girl who fled big-city violence for the supposed tranquility of the rural South. Boy, did she ever settle on the wrong spot!
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