Virginia, 1931: a time of good men, bad cops, pretty girls and a world turned sour as dodgy moonshine by poverty and prohibition. Cinema has been in this glorified world many times before, of course, and John Hillcoat and Nick Cave, working together for the first time since 2005’s The Proposition, don’t much surprise with the thrust of their bone-cracking tale of the bootlegging Bondurant brothers: Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke).
In a rural backwater the boys run up against various obstacles: a mean cop on assignment from Chicago, Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce); an Al Capone type from the big smoke, Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman); and two beautiful women whose backgrounds stand in the way of love (Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain).
Lawless ('Os Infratores') is not a nuanced tale: the Bondurants begin as honest, if extremely violent, folk and finish up that way. LaBeouf’s Jack is youthful and out-going, while Hardy’s Forrest is dour and mumdbling, and their essential decency is never called into question. Even the small-town cops seem apologetic whenever they have to put an awkward question or two to the brothers. Locally the boys have a reputation for being invincible, such is their ability to bounce back from adversity – it’s an idea that gives the film one of its very few moments of humour.
Hillcoat and Cave’s decision to be very liberal with the bloodletting and throat-cutting – knuckledusters in faces, testicles in jars – doesn’t stop their film from feeling a bit too pretty (in the same way that Wasikowska and Chastain are perhaps too glossily beautiful for Jack and Forrest’s respective love interests).
Where Lawless has more to offer is Benoît Delhomme’s photography – there are great pastoral shots – and a relaxed direction by Hillcoat that gives time to endearing performances and a strong sense of time and place. LaBeouf offers the charisma of a green newbie in the same way that Hardy offers the anti-charisma of a guy who’s been round the block too many times to remember. However, the actors are fetishised by Hillcoat, and Pearce, especially, is allowed the space to become a cartoon villain.
There’s little in Lawless – a more mainstream experience than The Proposition – to upset a romantic vision of the Bondurants’ lives and experiences. That’s surely because Cave’s script is based on a 2008 novel, The Wettest County in the World, by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of one of the brothers.
Hillcoat and Cave tell this tale from a perspective of blind fondness, like elderly relatives romanticising their ancestors around the fireplace. It makes for an oddly comfy experience considering the death and hurt at the film’s core.