After the subdued and melancholy The Road, director John Hillcoat comes out guns blazing with Lawless – a period crime saga that’s the movie equivalent of a mainstream pop hit, and one containing about as much subtlety.
Talking of music, Lawless is busting with it. The soundtrack thrums with modern ditties rendered period by folksy violins (listen out for a bluegrass cover of Lou Reed’s ‘White Light/White Heat’). That’s no surprise considering Nick Cave provided the score, and it’s a conceit that mostly works, boosting Hillcoat’s unfussy visuals with ageless vibrancy.
“These were dangerous times,” twangs Shia LaBeouf as the film opens, and he ain’t kidding. Set during Depression-era Virginia, within minutes Lawless has surrendered a pig getting shot in the head, a party in which the guest of honour is a corpse, and streets splotched with bloody red puddles.
LaBeouf (keeping his clothes on, despite recent forays into music video nudity) plays Jack Bondurant, youngest of the Bondurant brothers and feeling the pressure to live up to the family’s reputation as bootlegging bad-asses. That’s made all the harder considering his big bro is Forrest (Tom Hardy), a beast of a man who’s rumoured to be indestructible.
Though the rest of the cast includes stellar up-and-comers Jessica Chastain and Dane DeHaan (Chronicle), Lawless is LaBeouf’s film. That’s both a good and a bad thing because while LaBeouf is excellent, easily banishing any nagging memories of robots in disguise, the likes of Hardy (who manages to be menacing while wearing a cardigan) and Chastain rarely have much to do.
Equally sidelined is Gary Oldman’s gun-wielding gangster Floyd Banner, here little more than a cameo despite the mother of all grand-standing entrances. More time is afforded to Guy Pearce’s wane, mannered Special Agent Charlie Rakes, who’s cracking down on the illegal trafficking of goods in Virginia. Pearce, who was fantastic in Hillcoat’s The Proposition, is riveting as a panto baddie, ushering in the most upsetting scenes of torture since Game of Thrones’ rat burrowing incident.
Considering the pedigree of talent involved, though, not to mention the richness of the world Hillcoat creates, you can’t help but want more. At under two hours long, there’s plenty of room for a fuller exploration of the story’s fascinating bit-players. So while Hillcoat impresses, squeezing Cave’s script (adapted from Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County In The World) for all its juice, his film feels unfinished. Still, if you want a sensitive, restrained period drama, watch The Assassination Of Jesse James. If it’s rootin-tootin’ guns-blazing entertainment you’re after, you could do a lot worse than Lawless. 3/5