Bootlegger Blues: John Hillcoat’s Lawless (2012) – cinema review
All texture, no insight as Hillcoat tries to turn family hagiography into myth-making ballad and creates Braveheart with Tommy guns.
(John Hillcoat, 2012)
The giveaway is the name of the guy who Lawless’ source book, The Wettest County In The World: Matt Bondurant. Yes, that’s the same surname as the brothers (played by Jason Clarke, Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf) around whom John Hillcoat’s bootlegger thriller revolves. For Matt is their descendant, and the resulting story is a hagiography to rival Braveheart, recasting the Bondurant boys – moonshiners with a ruthless attitude towards anybody who tries to stop them – as good-time outlaws to rival The Dukes Of Hazzard.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; after all, Francis Ford Coppola was half in love with the Corleone clan for much the same reasons of hard-wired familial honour and old-school courtesy… at least, compared to their enemies. Yet where Coppola framed The Godfather’s clash of violence and pasta dinners, appropriately, as a brooding opera, Hillcoat and screenwriter/composer Nick Cave have made the bloodiest of ballads. They’ve taken Matt Bondurant’s crazy notion that his relatives were indestructible forces of nature at face value, resulting in a film that is savage but strangely jaunty. There are only so many graphic shootings, beatings and throat-slittings that you can see the Bondurants survive before the whole thing attains a kind of baroque, macho kitsch.
In his defence, Hillcoat is a guy who doesn’t make easy films, either in subject matter or in style, and his approach to casting is even more violent than the on-screen action. After the cameo-laden The Road, the choice of actors here is random enough to feel like an ambitious plan in archetyping. Clearly, on paper, Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf should never, ever be cast as brothers and so it proves – one is effortlessly commanding through a mumbled register nearly as difficult to understand as Bane, the other puppyish and cocky to the point of being annoying. But that’s the point; the representation of the Bondurants isn’t as flesh and blood but as half-remembered ideals, the products of campfire gossip.
Likewise, Jessica Chastain as a worldly city gal and Mia Ksdivsd as a plain jane Amish girl are chalk and cheese; it’s hard to picture the latter doing Chastain’s naked shimmy down the corridor. As the famed gangster who LaBeouf’s Jack idolises, who better than movie star Gary Oldman, popping up in a movie star cameo? And for the villain, let’s go for the polar opposite to Hardy’s withdrawn Hulk, and have Guy Pearce as a preening, eyebrow-less dandy. On his own, Pearce’s outrageous performance crosses the line between intriguingly odd and off-puttingly weird so many times that it’s hard to know if it’s meant to be funny. In tandem with everybody else, it looks like a systematic attempt to dismantle assumptions of realism.
So, while the film has a marvellous sense of place informed by Hillcoat’s, it isn’t quite right. This is an outsider’s vision, but one based on the Australian director finding parallels between rural American and the Outback’s sense of camaraderie and disdain for city life. The languid pace and interest in local colour (literally: Hillcoat frequently draws our attention to the era’s apartheid) are certainly very un-American… but then Hillcoat isn’t interested in historical realism either. The past is simply a playground on which to create the Bondurant myth, and so there’s plenty of texture but precious little insight into what drives the Bondurants. The film takes the myth-making for granted: these are earthy, country types who just want to live their life without being bothered. Of course, they’re going to fight back. How Australian.
Every time the film shows signs of improvement, it is sucked into the vortex left by the film’s subjects. Hillcoat’s “true myth” technique worked well in his earlier films, especially The Proposition, because the material was so striking, but we’ve seen too many – and better – Prohibition films to be surprised. The Bondurants just aren’t interesting enough as people or as icons. Perhaps that’s why the film is so blood-stained, as Cave and Hillcoat attempt to batter some interest into it.
The primary dramatic arc concerns Jack’s interest in manning up, but he hardly gains any redemption or Epiphany, and the mushily sentimental coda suggests the antics of silly boys who were still growing up rather than stubborn criminals. It’s left to Chastain (whose face flickers with ambivalence) and Hardy (who plays against his character’s thuggish legend with a Zen-like softness, as if Forrest is trying to shed his bad boy image) to reminder that even “legends” need some degree of emotional edge. Or perhaps it would have been better as a song after all: Cave and Warren Ellis’ soundtrack is superb, and the film finally comes to life during a rousing montage set to a countrified cover of The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat.
Lawless is currently in cinemas. I saw it at Showcase Cinema De Lux.