Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Man on Film: Lawless

Director John Hillcoat and long-time friend and part-time collaborator Nick Cave's latest feature together Lawless may not be as fully-realized or as well-executed an effort as their last project together 2005's The Proposition, but it's a helluva ride nonetheless.

Set in the hills of Appalachia during the Prohibition Era, we are brought into a rural America that is being encroached upon by the larger urban powers that be, both lawful and unlawful. It is an interesting backdrop, and Lawless gives us a region and a people at a crossroads, a time and place in which these western Virginians had an overarching desire to simply hold onto their way of life. More so than perhaps anyone else in this world, the Bondurant boys want to keep a grip on their way of life and by means that at times defy logic and reason they will stand up to whatever outside forces attempt to act against them.

As the leader of the family, Forrest Bondurant, Tom Hardy is fantastic. His performance is positively inspired. Each moment he is on screen is a moment in which the film is enriched for his having been there. His natural physicality is brilliantly contrasted by an otherwise soft-spoken mumble-filled performance; he is socially reserved and a bit awkward but underneath lies a darkness and brutality waiting to boil over, spilling over onto everything around him. For his part, Jason Clarke--in a role with much less meat--fully embodies the less refined, less reserved, more inclined to indulging his id bootlegging brother. Rounding out the Brothers Bondurant, Shia LaBeouf is serviceable if not spectacular as the youngest and weakest of the bunch, the one who gets too big for his britches as it were. He is supposed to be a bit feckless and disproportionately cocksure, but it's hard to get past the fact that he looks pretty haggard and booze-soaked even when he's not supposed to be.

In support (or at times opposition) of the brothers, the rest of the cast is exceptionally well-cast. Jessica Chastain, continuing on in her string of outstanding turns, is great, holding her own against an otherwise almost entirely male cast and with a role that's not brimming over with rich subtext and backstory. She is stunning, and once again imbues her character with a quiet humanity that very few can infuse into their roles as seamlessly and effortlessly. In a lesser role, Gary Oldman, ever the chameleon, sinks into his role as big city mobster Floyd Banner as he has done hundreds of times before. But the most impressive performance (aside from Hardy's) comes from Guy Pearce, who is unrecognizable in appearance, manner, and performance. As an effete city cop with a streak of brutality and a disturbing sexuality about him, Pearce was brilliant. Complete with perhaps the most disturbing hairstyle ever, Pearce is the slimiest dandy cop imaginable, and he plays this with such elan that it simultaneously makes you marvel at the depravity while being shaken.

To compliment a spectacular cast, screenwriter Cave and Warren Ellis took to working up a brilliant soundtrack, one that hasn't left the CD player in the car in weeks. Between employing the likes of Ralph Stanley, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Mark Lanegan, reworking tunes by Captain Beefheart, The Velvet Underground, Link Wray, John Lee Hooker, and Grandaddy, and writing songs anew, the soundtrack is so much goddamn fun.

As for the script, it manages to be significantly more fun than Cave's last time out. For all of the serious subject matter and the dire straits the Bondurants find themselves in, Lawless is actually quite funny, a trait that one wouldn't generally apply to The Proposition. Given his penchant for extreme violence, it is amusing to read Cave saying in interviews that the book from which the film is adapted (The Wettest County in the World) is jarringly violent and that much of the violence simply couldn't come through to the screen. The violence is still there and would appear to stay true to the way it manifests itself in the book, being jarring precisely because of how the lyricism in the book so suddenly gives way to darkness. The balance is struck quite well, and the quieter or more pastoral scenes of Appalachian Prohibition Era life contrast well with the violence that colors the film.

For Hillcoat's part, the film looks fantastic, and the whole thing comes together quite nicely. While not entirely perfect, Lawless is a good damn time and delivers on the promise that the assembly of the pieces involved possesses. Hillcoat largely has the sublime performances of Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce to thank for that, but they do make Lawless a helluva good time.

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