Musician and writer Nick Cave has once again teamed up with Australian writer and director John Hillcoat for a film about lawless brothers. Their previous effort, 2005’s The Proposition, suffered from an inability to decide whose story it was supposed to tell. The script for Lawless is more focused, but also strangely uncompelling.
Set in 1920’s Virginia, the film tells the somewhat true story of the three Bondurant brothers and their bootlegging business. It’s based on the “historical novel” The Wettest County In the World, by Matt Bondurant, great-grandson of one of the brothers. That’s “novel,” not non-fiction, so take those advertising claims of “based on a true story” with a grain of salt.
Shia Leboef is Jack, the youngest Bondurant brother, and the narrator of the tale. He relays legends about the Bondurant clan, and how for generations they’ve been virtually indestructible; nothing can kill them. This proves a good talent to have when running a backwoods moonshine business. Oldest brother Forrest, (Tom Hardy), heads up the operation, while middle brother Howard, (Jason Clarke), is the muscle. But it’s Jack who has ambition, hoping to take their small–albeit successful–business wide.
He finds the opportunity with Chicago gangster Floyd Banner, (Gary Oldman, woefully underused), and is able to widen distribution. But with big-city business comes big-city law, and corrupt officials, headed by special agent Charlie Rakes, (Guy Pearce).
Let’s just talk about that Rakes character, and Guy Pearce’s portrayal. For some reason, he’s a complete dandy who doesn’t like to get his clothes dirty, has a part in his hair so severe it looks shaved in, and eyebrows that must have met the same razor. He bears an uncanny resemblance to Bob Geldof in Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
This character is also a sadist who enjoys raping prostitutes and kicking the shit out of the Bondurants boys. He’s such an insane caricature compared to the rest of the film’s cast, that he sticks out like a sore thumb, (albeit a well-dressed one).
There are other characters in the film that are problematic, but for different reasons. Two females hover around the edges, for no other reason than to have both a Madonna, (Bertha, an Amish-ish young woman, played by Mia Wasikowska), and a Whore, (Maggie, a waitress and former showgirl, played by the omnipresent Jessica Chastain), for the brothers to play with. And frankly, I’m a little tired of women being in movies just so their characters can get raped, thus firing up their male love interests to revenge.
I’ll give the movie this: The time and setting are convincing; the costumes are impeccable; and the soundtrack–also by Nick Cave–is a catchy mix of modern bluesy songs recorded to sound like classic bluegrass.
And for a while, Lawless seems to be heading towards something new–a true-ish tale with bits of legend and magical realism thrown in–but it just ends up being a lesser version of a gangster story that’s been told time and time again.