This year the organisers of the Edinburgh Film Festival decided to bring back the popular ‘Surprise Movie’ event which has been absent from its programme for the last couple of years. The event was a sell-out, and as the audience settled into their seats before the film began there was a palpable sense of excitement in the cinema. It is just this sort of electric atmosphere which accompanies a real sense of event – one which befits a festival setting – that the EIFF has arguably been lacking for the last few years, and it was nice to get the sense that we, the audience, were in for something special. As the lights dimmed, that something special was revealed to be the new film from Australian director John Hillcoat; Lawless.
Fresh from the critical triumph of his rendering of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic thriller The Road, Hillcoat has re-teamed with prolific musician and writer Nick Cave, who scripted the gritty Australian western The Proposition for the director back in 2005. Lawless is the new fruit of their continuing collaboration; a prohibition-era crime drama set in rural Virginia which proves to be a perfect showcase for the director’s twin recurring themes of bleak landscapes and morally ambiguous protagonists. Based on Matt Bondurant’s historical novel The Wettest County in the World, the film tells the real-life story of the Bondurant brothers (Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke and Shia LeBeouf), a family of bootleggers who run moonshine across county lines and turn a tidy profit. But times are changing, and the steady stream of gangsters, cops and runaways fleeing the blood-soaked streets of Capone’s Chicago bring with them new challenges to the brothers’ way of life. Glamorous gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) presents a fresh but risky business opportunity, former dancer Maggie (Jessica Chastain) a possible romantic entanglement, and monstrous Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) an ever-growing threat to both the Bondurants’ business and their lives. Against this backdrop of crime and conflict, the youngest brother, Jack (LeBeouf) slowly comes of age, and through his clumsy courtship of a local preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska) begins to see that there might be more to life than running moonshine.
The film is narrated by Jack Bondurant, and our sharing of his perspective seems to suggest that his is the central role, but the viewer’s attention is constantly drawn back to the film’s two larger-than-life characters, and the captivating performances of the actors who portray them. Tom Hardy’s Forrest Bondurant is an almost mythic figure, a stoic and principled man of action who thrives on local legends which say he cannot be killed. Hardy utterly inhabits the role, compounding Forrest’s oblique façade by often communicating in little more than unintelligible grunts, occasionally to great comic effect. His adversary, Deputy Rakes, is a skeletal, eyebrow-less ghoul, a man whose appearance seems to have been constructed specifically to create unease in those around him. His unsettling look and his tendency to commit sudden acts of brutal violence make him a compelling villain, and Pearce gives life to this deeply unpleasant character with one of the finest performances of his career. The bloody war of attrition between the two men runs parallel to Jack’s journey of self-discovery, and as the bodies pile up on both sides of the conflict it begins to look as if the Bondurant boys’ rumoured immortality will soon be put to the test.
Lawless falls just short of being the ‘rural gangster’ epic it aspires to be, and Cave and Hillcoat don’t leave themselves quite enough room to adequately incorporate such a large cast of characters. Oldman, Clarke and Wasikowska in particular suffer with too little screen time, but whether this is down to the film’s scripting or editing remains unclear. What does make it to the screen, though, is a well-crafted story about lost innocence and personal principle, featuring unflinching violence, memorable characters and some bleakly beautiful locations. John Hillcoat can consider Lawless yet another triumph, as Nick Cave’s screenwriting career goes from strength to strength.
“Lawless” will be released in the UK on 7th September.
Jim “Make Mine Moonshine” Taylor, geekzine correspondent, signing off from the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2012.