John Hillcoat’s third major film, based on a novel (in turn based on a true story), sees him take on a family of moonshiners in Prohibition-era Virginia. Again, he teams up with Nick Cave who scripted and (with fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis) scored.
I enjoyed Hillcoat’s first international success, the Australian revenge-Western The Proposition, very much. On the other hand, 2009’s ultra-bleak The Road made for pretty tough watching, though it had a rare quality of grim fascination. Lawless is less successful than either, having neither the ripping-yarn story of the former nor the single-minded tautness of the latter.
Hillcoat and Cave have high hopes for their film – it’s pitched toward ‘epic’ taking on grand themes: family, vengeance, justice, redemption. In its dreams, Lawless would be a kind of Sergio Leone-scripted mountain man re-imagining of The Godfather, albeit focusing on Shia LaBeouf’s Fredo-a-like runt of the litter.
In execution, the film doesn’t live up to this promise. As so often with literary adaptations, the major let-down here is in the story. It as uneven as the Blue Ridge Mountains in which it is set, awkwardly lurching between broad humour and grotesque violence and packed with non-sequiturs and logic-lapses. The dialogue is fine and Nick Cave certainly has a canny ear for repartee – but the problem is in the characters, their relationships and the choices they make.
If I were to gripe further, at least three of the principle characters (including the two lead women) are barely relevant to the story; Gary Oldman’s part is little more than a cameo, despite being given a grand entrance. While I’m at it, Guy Pearce’s principle antagonist is ludicrously high-camp, a kind of X-rated Nazi version of Alan Rickman’s Sherriff of Nottingham. I suppose there’s an argument for his dramatic contrast as a big city lawman to his rough-and-ready Appalachian surrounds, but it is out of place in film that otherwise makes a virtue of attention to period detail.
That’s not to say it’s all shell with no egg: there are some splendid individual scenes (a standout being the white gospel-singing set-piece), the film is beautifully shot by Benoit Delhomme, the acting is generally fine and Tom Hardy as the invulnerable clan chief seems to be a shoo-in for the prestigious ‘Hillbilly of the Year’ gong at the glamorous Multiplex Slut end-of-year awards. The music deserves particular praise, occupying a space somewhere between Cave & Ellis’s own Proposition score and the down-home charm of the Cold Mountain and Oh Brother Where Art Thou? soundtracks.
But that’s not enough. Lawless is not a terrible film and is certainly superior to the other recent stab at prohibition-era gangsterism, Michael Mann’s unaccountably dull Public Enemies. But given the source material and the creative muscle involved, it should’ve been much better.