Saturday 8 September 2012

Lawless (2012) - John Hillcoat

September 2012.  America is in stasis: torn between two potential presidents, in the midst of a global recession, its future unknown.

Back in the Prohibition era, America was in a similar state: economic downturn, violence, anger and depression.  It's in this period that Lawless is set, which sees three brothers who operate above the law, producing and smuggling moonshine in rural Chicago - Shia LaBeouf's young, eager-to-please Jack; Jason Clarke's inebriated hillbilly Howard; and Tom Hardy's stoic leader Forrest.  When a new, corrupt deputy arrives in town (Guy Pearce), the guys meet their match.  And that's not to mention local gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman).

The obvious parallels may be a cheap way of adding some depth, but Hillcoat does a commendable job of recreating the period.  The dusty roads; the battered costumes; the grainy visuals (especially the opening autumnal shot); and blues guitar all add to a deep sense of sadness and melancholy.  This is a population with little to do but drink and cause violence.

Sadly, this extends to the plot.  This is a war between the power hungry police and the rebellious lower class that's slow moving and, at times, a little dull.  The main dramatic impetus is a series of violent episodes that certainly suggest a mad brutality, but there's a lack of emotional weight beyond some flimsy love interests in Maggie (Jessica Chastain) and Bertha (Mia Wasikowska).

That said, this is a well acted film, even if it's essentially a clash of alpha males.  Oldman is underused as Banner, but Pearce is frightening as the crazed, greasy deputy.  It's Hardy who steals the film though, with just a few lines of dialogue, some emotive grunting and speaking every. Line. Like. That.  Despite bulking up for The Dark Knight Rises, he is an imposing on-screen presence for his steely glance more than anything.

Lawless is based on The Wettest County In The World, a novel by Matt Bondurant itself based on a true story.  It's surprising therefore that the story lacks interest, amongst some great performances and cinematography.