With “Lawless,” Australian director John Hillcoat takes aim at one of the Holy Grails of filmmakers — the classic outlaw/gangster movie. It remains just beyond his reach, however, yet the effort is impressive for Hillcoat is one of those directors whose movies are utterly compelling.
The film harkens back to Hillcoat’s best work, “The Proposition” (2006 ), a visceral, pitiless Australian western set in the remote outback where corruption and blood-spilling went with the territory. He teams once again with his former art-school mate, rock-star/artist Nick Cage, who as he did with “The Proposition” wrote the screenplay and much of the film’s music.
The story takes place in Prohibition-era Virginia. It’s based on Matt Bondurant’s fictionalized version of his own family history, “The Wettest County in the World,” published to acclaim in 2008. That wet spot would be Franklin County where bootlegging was just about the only employment opportunity during the Great Depression.
The three Bondurant Brothers try to blend into the hills but their moonshine is so good and their methods so determined, they are already legends by the time a corrupt and vicious special deputy arrives to challenge them.
Jack, the youngest of the boys, is eager to test his manhood but feels hemmed in by his two brothers, Forrest (a sturdy Tom Hardy), a taciturn man convinced of his own indestructibility, and Howard (Jason Clarke also very good), a survivor of the Great War who returned home an unreliable drunk.
Jack has a reckless streak that finds him running a load of moonshine without Forrest’s knowledge to a local gangster, Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), or courting Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the off-limits daughter of a Bible-thumping preacher.
The brothers’ moonshine is as good as it is because of the distilling skills of Jack’s friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan), a crippled boy whose bones may be brittle but never mean.
Then two people arrive in the county. One is a former Chicago burlesque performer, Maggie (Jessica Chastain), although she doesn’t advertise her past. Instead she asks for a job at the boys’ Blackwater Gas Station, where they all live and conduct business.
She asks in such a way that makes “no” an impossible answer. And Forrest can’t keep his eyes off her.
Then there’s Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) also from Chicago. However he was portrayed in Bondurant’s novel, the filmmakers made a decision to re-enforce the Robin Hood nature of the brothers’ illegal trade by turning Rakes into a foul Sheriff of Nottingham.
With his blackened hair slicked back and a part in the middle wide enough for a semi, Pearce’s Rakes (pictured left) is a preening sadist. He dresses fastidiously in elegant suits and gloves and holds the local “hillbillies” in complete contempt.
So the Bondurants claim the moral high ground without much fuss while Jack corners the market in sheer foolishness. His brazen carelessness in his efforts to assert his manhood — and show off for Bertha — bring disaster on the family.
This milieu gives Cage as writer and composer (along with fellow band member Warren Ellis) license to explore backwoods Americana circa 1931. The music delves into bluegrass, gospel and country while the screenplay explores notions of honor and loyalty among the hill folk.
Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography on location in Georgia discovers old covered bridges, buildings and backroads in the limited colors of that era — grays, browns and certain shades of oranges and reds in sepia-like tones.
Hillcoat stages the many instances of violence well and evokes a feeling of tense forbidding in between. In one, Forrest gets his throat cut yet survives. In another, Rakes nearly beats Jack to death.
A final shootout has an odd staging that perhaps reflects actual events. Local law enforcement all but refuses to back up Rakes while each side goes out of its way to avoid gun play — to no avail.
There is a similar ambivalence in the movie itself as if the makers can never quite decide whether the brothers are just natural rebels and hell-raisers or tragic figures mired in that era’s harsh realities.
Hillcoat certainly gets fine performances from his cast. Everyone except the over-the-top Rakes is quite natural, the brutality springing either from self-defense or revenge rather than meanness. So too the movie approaches its violent moments with an air of inevitability.
In aiming for a mythological tone — and with a weak coda that probably should have been cut following its Cannes debut — the film never quite achieves its goal of a classic film. The characters aren’t distinctive or iconic enough for that but the film is alway engrossing.
You get the feeling that some of the book’s crucial story never found its way into the movie. Thus the film seems to skip things to get to key moments but you’re not always sure how and why these happen.
Still this is a movie that lingers in the mind with strong images and a great soundtrack. You can do a lot worse than that.
Opens: August 29, 2012 (The Weinstein Co.)
Production companies: The Weinstein Co./Yuk Films and Benaroya Pictures present an Annapurna Pictures/Douglas Wick-Lucy Fisher/Blumhansonallen Films production
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clark, Dane DeHaan, Guy Pearce
Director: John Hillcoat
Screenwriter: Nick Cage
Based on the book by: Matt Bondurant
Producers: Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Megan Ellison, Michael Benaroya
Executive producers: Dany Wolf, Rachel Shane, Jason Blum, Scott Hanson, Cassian Elwes, Laura Rister, Robert Ogden Barnum, Ted Schipper, Randy Manis, Ben Sachs
Director of photography: Benoit Delhomme
Production designer: Chris Kennedy
Music: Nick Cage, Warren Ellis
Costume designer: Margot Wilson
Editor: Dylan Tichenor
R rating, 115 minutes