The old adage that truth is often stranger than fiction is one worth remembering during John Hillcoat’s hero worship tale of the Bondurant Boys, a trio of brothers successfully selling truckloads of moonshine during the days of alcohol prohibition and The Great Recession. That the combination of fact and fabrication lie together so uneasily prevents Lawless from being the classic some had hoped for but it’s still a ripping yarn.
With alcohol outlawed across America, the densely populated cities of Chicago and New York are flooded with illegal booze and criminality. In the quieter areas of the country, including Franklin County, hooch is made and delivered with relative ease, cops are paid off and violence is kept to a minimum. But when a bogus lawman by the name of Charlie Rakes tries to get his cut of the liquor business from the Bondurant brothers, their leader Forrest refuses to bend to demands. Violence ensues.
Lawless, Hillcoat’s follow-up to the criminally underrated The Road, contains a number of similarities to his sit-up-and-pay-attention début, The Proposition. The story centres around a band of brothers, hunted by an outsider in a land he doesn’t understand, it contains moments of shocking violence, and visual elegance and includes Guy Pearce in desperate need of a trip to a decent hairstylist. What it lacks in comparison, and what makes it in many ways an inferior work, is the presence of moral ambiguity, a moral ambiguity that audiences have grown accustomed to outside of the mainstream.
And herein lies the rub. Lawless is a mainstream movie, complete with star names guaranteed to get a few bums on seats (The kid from Transformers! That big fella from Batman!) but the men behind it, screenwriter Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat are anything but. Caught between the rock of making an accessible piece of fiction that draws in punters and the hard place of making a film that speaks to America and its crazy criminalisation process, Lawless becomes a little of neither, bogged down in stereotypical bad guys, that are fun to watch but wholly unbelievable.
The end result feels like it’s affected by the heavy hand of studio interference, either cut down from a sprawling epic to a brief 120 minutes, or overly padded and weighed down by the necessity to have not one but two romances shoe-horned in. Somewhere in an editing suite there just might be a great and purposefully lengthy Godfather-esque tale of a tight-knit family changing over time and circumstance or there’s a fast-paced 90 minute rip-roaring tale of revenge. If all this talk of a superior movie lost reads too negatively, it shouldn’t because Lawless has more than enough to made it worthy of recommendation.
Firstly there’s some exceptional acting and a number of memorable characters. Top of the row being Tom Hardy’s Forest. The third in a trio of stupendously strong and virtually silent types (Warrior‘s Tommy Conlon, The Dark Knight Rises‘s Bane) Forrest is at once a killing machine and a slightly effeminate mother protector. His voluminous grunts and uncomfortable looks are played for, and gain, plenty of laughs but they also help give heart and an inherent likeability to this stubborn, dangerous man.
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Another virtue lies in the surprising, uneven tone. Coming from the pen of the man who began one of the world’s greatest love songs (‘Into My Arms’) with a confession about the theological differences between him and his beau, it’s not surprising that Lawless often feels like a beautiful piece of music with intentional bum notes to keep you on track. That elements of humour can sit so close, and occasionally overlap, with moments of high emotion shows a writer and director, like the Bondurant Brothers themselves, unafraid to bend the rules.
A bona-fide classic will come from Hillcoat and Cave, but this isn’t quite it. We suggest they try and team up for Cave’s bonkers take on a semi-sequel to Gladiator. After all studios love a franchise…
Lawless isn’t flawless, but it is another well constructed tale from John Hillcoat and his screenwriter Nick Cave. A grown-up, thought provoking piece to end the summer with, Lawless contains a number of notable performances (Hardy shines yet again), but as a whole it’s a little squiffy.