Director John Hillcoat, whose previous films include The Proposition and The Road, stays on broadly similar ground with Lawless, based on the novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant. Aussie rock legend Nick Cave adapted the screenplay, his first since original script The Proposition. It’s easy to see what attracted Cave to Bondurant’s novel; it shares the same graphic depictions of violence and Southern Gothic tone that made The Proposition so memorable. Unfortunately though, Lawless is more of a by-the-numbers gangster thriller, ultimately conforming to the rise and fall narrative that we’ve seen a million times before in similar films. That said, several astonishing performances make this well worth a watch.
Shia LeBeouf plays Jack Bondurant, a keen but naive bootlegger, eclipsed by the fearsome reputations of his elder brothers Forest and Howard, played by Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke respectively. Business operates smoothly until the arrival of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, a sadistic psychopath seeking to cut in on the profits or shut them down altogether at the behest of a corrupt politician. Aside from tacked on love interests for Forest and Jack that’s pretty much it in terms of plot, the narrative unfolding as a feud gradually escalating in brutal violence. Guy Pearce is genuinely repulsive as Charlie Rakes, arguably one of the most memorable Hollywood villains since Ledger’s Joker. Hardy is also excellent as Forest, often speaking in little more than grunts, he is suitably menacing in every scene.
A note on the previously mentioned violence; this is definitely not one for the squeamish. We see slashed throats, brutal beatings and scenes of torture, including a man being tarred and feathered which isn’t nearly as funny as you may have imagined. As Hardy’s character notes early on “it’s not the violence that sets men apart, but the distance they are prepared to go.” Most of the characters in Lawless are very much prepared to go to particularly sadistic lengths. Without giving too much away, one set piece will be particularly uncomfortable for male viewers…
A brief warning to Gary Oldman fans, his role in the movie is a glorified cameo which though entertaining is somewhat disappointing, especially considering the trailer implies he plays a much bigger role.