In 2006, director John Hillcoat blew my mind. I went into The Proposition knowing only that it was set in Australia and starred a lot of actors I admire; I came out half shellshocked and entirely awed. Bloody, ugly, intense, beautifully and intelligently made, The Proposition was a movie that wrestled with morality; put tough, deeply flawed characters front and center; and didn’t shy away from truly awful violence. It’s one thing to cheer Batman knocking out bad guys; it’s another to watch flies circle a puddle of blood, or hear the harsh crack of bone breaking.
Lawless, which follows Hillcoat’s 2009 adaptation of The Road, is cut from similar cloth. Once again, screenwriter Nick Cave’s story follows three outlaw brothers (though here he’s adapting Matt Bondurant’s novel); once again, violence has a central place in their lives, and morality is a shifty thing that has little to do with governance and laws. In Prohibition-era Franklin County, Virginia, the Bondurant brothers — Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) — are successful bootleggers. They’re in cahoots with local authorities, and everyone knows not to mess with them; local legend even has it that Forrest is immortal. That’s unlikely, but what isn’t questionable is his ferocity with a set of brass knuckles. Bondurants don’t take shit from anybody, and Forrest — who can speak paragraphs with a monosyllabic grunt — is their undisputed leader, the taut, stocky presence in all their deals. When a city lawyer and his slimy special deputy, Charlie Rakes (a creepy Guy Pearce), come in and expect the Bondurants to capitulate to their demands for a share of the profit, everything goes to hell — but slowly, in fits and starts.
Apart from the occasional spurt of Forrest’s terrifyingly effective viciousness, Lawless begins with an unexpected looseness. The law is a bother, but the days are bright, the whiskey sells like hotcakes, and the scenery — as shot by Proposition cinematographer Benoit Delhomme — is glorious. A pretty city lass, Maggie (Jessica Chastain), comes to work at the Bondurants’ place, and a sweet preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska) catches Jack’s eye. The Bondurants look out for each other: Coiled-snake Forrest has a leash on hotheaded Howard and thinks he’s got Jack under his wing as well. But Jack’s tired of being the housedog, the driver, and his ambitions further complicate the Bondurants’ existence.
And so the narrative threads start to tighten. Lawless’ complex story sits, as Hillcoat has noted in interviews, in the place between Westerns and gangster movies. Our heroes are outlaws, but they do ugly things; their enemies are cops, except when they aren’t. These characters don’t fit neatly into types, and their story doesn’t play out along expected lines (though truly bad guys do tend to meet satisfying fates). Cave’s screenplay shines a bitter light on Prohibition’s disastrous tangle of restriction, capitalism and corruption, but it also gently teases out a more intimate story: that of a man trying to reshape his own nature.
Forrest is the gravitational force in the Bondurant family, but Jack is the storyteller, the one with the vision, the one who’s stayed outside when the violence goes down. His struggle to play the bootlegger game, to put aside his kinder self and get dirty because that’s what he thinks the world needs of him, gives Lawless a quiet strength — the same kind that Maggie displays when everything comes crashing down on the Bondurants. Lawless might sound like a familiar story — the rebellious boys on the wrong side of a corrupt law — but in Cave and Hillcoat’s hands, it’s anything but. Complex, horrifying, pitch-perfect and exceedingly well acted, it’s the near-brilliant film you never expected at the end of summer.
LAWLESS: Directed by John Hillcoat. Screenplay by Nick Cave; based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant. Cinematography, Benoit Delhomme. Editor, Dylan Tichenor. Music, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska and Gary Oldman. The Weinstein Company, 2012. R. 115 minutes. Four and a half stars.