Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Cannes Review of Lawless by John Hillcoat

LAWLESS *** Directed by John Hillcoat Starring  Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Guy Pearce 115 min, playing in competition In 2005, John Hillcoat turned a script by Nick Cave into one of the best films of the decade: The Proposition. That …

Sat, May 19, 2012, 14:31

   

LAWLESS

***

Directed by John Hillcoat

Starring  Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Guy Pearce

115 min, playing in competition

In 2005, John Hillcoat turned a script by Nick Cave into one of the best films of the decade: The Proposition. That Australian western did not, however, get anything like the attention it deserved. Hillcoat and Cave will hope for greater recognition with this gratifyingly violent, nicely shot tale of moonshiners in prohibition-era America. They have a top flight cast: Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are all in place. The scenario is attractive. And, now, they have secured a place in the main competition at Cannes. Bring it on.

Well, the film certainly churns the blood, but its meandering narrative and outbreaks of absurdity prove somewhat off-putting. There is a sense of something half-formed about it. It needs a darn good shake.

Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy play, respectively, Jack and Forrest Bondurant, two brothers running illicit spirits in a renegade corner of Virginia. As we begin, Jack is still naive and weak-spirited, while the supposedly invincible Forrest has established a reputation as the most fearsome hoodlum in the district. Think of Michael and Sonny Corleone at the beginning of The Godfather and you’re halfway there. The younger man realises that the key to success is expansion and duly establishes a business relationship with big-time mobster Floyd Banner (an underused Gary Oldman). Before long, he is driving fancy cars and making advances on the preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska). But a new lawman has arrived in the extravagant perfumed form of Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce).

What is Mr Pearce up to? Speaking in a strange fluty voice, camply pulling on gloves like Marlene Dietrich in a Weimar revue, he offers us a villain from an entirely different, more fantastic genre of movie. The Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was a less heightened figure. The Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs seems, in comparison, like a character from a Mike Leigh film.

Anyway, the rest of the film will do well enough in an HBO sort of way. Hardy makes something hulky and inhuman of the older brother. The costumes and design, though never dirty enough, show evidence of diligent research. The soundtrack makes convincing and witty — note references to another prohibited drug — use of bluegrass takes on The Velvet Underground’s White Light White Heat.

If Cave had managed to impose some structure on this allegedly true story then we might have had a film that could sit comfortably beside The Proposition. Nobody should complain about the texture: the screenwriter uses his favoured biblical syntax to winning effect; he finds humour in Forrest’s apparent indestructibility. But, with a villain too absurd to take seriously, Lawless never sets up sufficient levels of jeopardy. It passes the time. But a whole bunch of opportunities appear to have been squandered.

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