There’s something about John Hillcoat and Nick Cave collaborations that click when they’re working. I think about that harsh Aussie western The Proposition, or Cave and Warren Ellis’s scores on The Proposition and The Road. Both Hillcoat and Cave just have a certain way around the rowdy stuff and the tender stuff that usually cracks like a shovel to the head.
Lawless is a mix of the rowdy and the tender as well. The screenplay was written by Cave, adapted from Matt Bondurant’s historical novel The Wettest County in the World. We have dusty outlaws making moonshine, getting paid, and cracking the skulls of city boys that look down on them. And there’s that swaggering bluegrass soundtrack that’s also a mix of stomps and coos.
When it’s going, it’s going great, which is why it’s unfortunate that Lawless slumps the way it does.
Director: John Hillcoat
Release Date: August 29th, 2012
Bondurant’s book was based on the lives of his own grandfather and two great-uncles who lived in Franklin County, Virginia during prohibition. The three Bordurant boys were moonshiners who made ends meet by handing out white lightning in mason jars. There’s the leader of the posse, Forrest (Tom Hardy); there’s the ox/muscle, Howard (Jason Clarke); and there’s the runty wannabe, Jack (Shia LaBeouf). In the first 20 minutes, a cheekbone gets caved in by a pair of brass knuckles and two people get ventilated via Tommy gun by a man named Banner, a Chicago gangster moseying through town (Gary Oldman).
So far, so good, my rowdy friends.
These are the cowboys of the American East. The hats have been fussed over to keep the sun out just right, except for Jack who keeps the brim snapped up just so. Their pieces are on them at all times, and there’s a certain cruelty that comes with their way of life. Part of it’s posturing, but that posturing might be a lifesaver. It’s Hillcoat’s wheelhouse, and he’s explored it in the Australian outback, in the fall of the civilized world, and now in the dust of the Depression. In the hills of green are smoke and fire, in the dance halls are wild men buying hooch and Mennonites none the wiser. There again, the rowdy and the tender; it excuses many of the tonal shifts in Lawless, because throughout there are dots of funny stuff in the dark places.
For stretches, Lawless gets by on the strength of a few key performances. Jessica Chastain plays Maggie, a woman from the city looking for a job with the Bondurants. Chastain’s always had a certain look and a way of carrying herself whether in Tree of Life, Take Shelter, or any of the dozen other movies she’s been in over the last two years. She can pass as working class and high society — she can play hewn from granite or fashioned out of marble. If Lawless, like its director and screenwriter, plays with dichotomies of tender and rowdy, Chastain is fittingly graceful and sultry, and her character gets to indulge in the latter. She’s a would-be Bonnie Parker for the stoic Forrest, the man who’s the hub of the movie even if he’s not technically the main character.
Hardy’s Forrest is so strangely affected. He seems aloof and ineffectual sometimes, but he seems to play it as a front. Could be he’s just a total eccentric who happens to be an incredible badass as well. Hardy lumbers around all glares and grunts. It’s almost like Hillcoat placed a mic in Hardy’s throat and sinuses to pick up those little guttural noises he makes. In real life, it’d sound like a sigh or chair scooted back suddenly, but only just. Yet those sounds that Forrest makes, minute as they are, are as expressive in Lawless as a full sentence. Same goes for his mumbled cusses and vocal creaks that are the partial, stopped-short words of real life. When Forrest turns on that brutality, it’s that much more intense given the way he carries himself otherwise.
Oldman makes an impression with his brief screentime (more on that in a bit), but it’s Guy Pearce who’s the most aggressive actor in the film. He’s Charlie Rakes, a special deputy out to bring down the bootlegging operation, and he’s also a big damn cartoon villain but in the best possible way. Eyebrows are non-existent, suits and gloves a must, and he has a wide part down the middle of his slicked-back hair, a part so clean and perfect that it must have been made with a straight razor at the barber shop. He’s Willem Dafoe and Udo Kier and so over-the-top. Pearce makes it work, at least when playing against Forrest and Maggie and Harold, and he relishes in classist insults.
But then there’s Jack, and he’s the yoke on the film. He’s also the main character. We’re supposed to sympathize with Jack, I think, but there’s something unsympathetic and even unlikable about him. I never go to movies or read books to make friends with the characters, but we’re meant to feel something for Jack, and Jack leaves me empty.
Jack the runt is just so boring and conventional. He’s trying to date the pretty Mennonite girl (Mia Wasikowska), he’s trying to prove he’s tough to his brothers, he’s infected with pride and ostentation. It’s that familiar story of the youngest kid who screws everything up and is too stupid to see it otherwise, but then there’s a forced sense of growth since he’s the hero and needs a perfunctory arc of some kind. Sure, Jack’s funny when he bumbles through courtship, but it’s not as amusing when his blunders are matters of life and death. In those latter cases, he’s acting dumb or arrogant as a means to drive the plot.
For a while I wondered if Jack bothered me because of the writing or if Jack bothered me because I have an aversion to Shia LaBeouf. (Sometimes it’s hard to forget the person and see only the character.) But his real-life persona aside, LaBeouf doesn’t have the same acting muscles as Hardy, Pearce, or Chastain. Even Clarke as the burly Harold conveys so much life in a drunken flop that LaBeouf doesn’t while crying. There are good moments from LaBeouf, like one creeping half-smile in a key scene, but they’re few, and his overall performance is dulled by the actors around him. But I think in the end, my problems with Jack had more to do with the writing, which is surprising because as a novelist, screenwriter, and lyricist, Nick Cave is usually very good.
Jack’s part of the story is far less engaging than the stories of the others. If there’s a literary designation for the unreliable narrator and the detached narrator, Jack’s ultimate shortcoming is that he’s the unfortunate narrator — unfortunate because he’s the main character and also the least interesting.
Since Jack’s the emotional center and the real drive for the last half of the movie, all that promise of rowdiness and tenderness felt squandered. It’d come back again when Hardy, Chastain, Pearce, and Oldman were on screen, but it’d go away again once LaBeouf and the underwritten Wasikowska were there. Oldman’s character even feels underused and unrealized, and just seems like an aside in the film despite providing a few of the movie’s most memorable moments.
What should be a thrilling, emotional climax to the movie winds up being a grunt, but it’s not as expressive or full as one of Forrest’s grunts. It’s something rushed into and telegraphed well in advance. Most of that finale doesn’t even feel as brutal as the mayhem that happens before, but it should have been the rowdiest bit of them all. Part of me wonders if the unevenness of Lawless had something to do with the source material. I haven’t read The Wettest County in the World, so I’m not sure. (Apparently Winesburg, Ohio author Sherwood Anderson is a narrator in the book, so I’m intrigued.) Maybe Jack reads better than he’s portrayed, or something in the text was lost in translation.
There’s a kind of coda to Lawless that seems like it’d work better in a novel, especially if the moment feels earned by the voice and the characters. Hillcoat was able to get Cormac McCarthy’s text across in the end of The Road well enough, so he knows how to reach a certain kind of pitch in a story as long as most everything else leading up to that moment hits. Lawless has its wind down, and I’m sure it’s supposed to make you feel something. Despite what’s goes right for the movie, that something just wasn’t there.
God dammit, Jack.