After the impenetrable bleakness of John Hillcoat’s previous feature The Road, one breathes a slight sigh of relief when it becomes apparent that his newest film Lawless is easing up on the previous outings suffocating and claustrophobic tone. That is not to suggest that Lawless isn’t operating in similar terrain, as Hillcoat has once again teamed up with Australian music icon turned screenwriter Nick Cave, who previously penned earlier Hillcoat films Ghosts… of the Civil Dead and The Proposition. Each of these films (including Lawless) ruminate on familiar themes of masculinity, criminality, the impact of institutionalised societal structures (mostly the legal system/police force) and most importantly how violence manifests and thus contributes to the deep rooted issues previously mentioned. This time round, Hillcoat and Cave seem to be interested also in the genesis of American capitalism and how these issues merge and conflict with older structures and traditions as well as, once again, how it contributes to and perpetuates violent acts. Where Lawless unfortunately also differs from its counterparts is in its seeming lack of continuity and haphazard construction, when compared to the headstrong and forceful impact the other two films so effortlessly exhibit.
Prohibition gangsters have had their fair share of cinematic screen time throughout the years. Films such as Howard Hawks’ Scarface and Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar helped to develop the American fascination with criminals; larger than life figures who re-interpreted the American dream for their own benefit contributing to an allure of such a lifestyle as well as simultaneously allowing for the development of the Hays Code due to the objectionable morality and inevitable violence. Just like the moonshine so desired in Lawless, this prohibition of cinema only increased the desire to consume it and thus a history of American governmental intervention begins. Even to this day as the war on drugs perplexingly still rages on, Hillcoat’s prohibition gangster film provides further insight into these operations and illustrates the trappings of such a restrictive system. The film tells the true story of the Bondurant brothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LeBeouf) as they run illegal shipments of alcohol across their hometown of Franklin County, Virginia. The simple operation seems to run smoothly enough as both the local police and businesses get a taste of the profits. However, once Guy Pearce’s Chicago Special Deputy Charley Rakes and criminal legend Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) show up, the once sound and efficient bootlegging business begins to turn ugly. Each of these men seem to represent the pinnacle of their respective institutions and each are equally to be feared and aspired to as their presence has a direct effect on the brothers, their relationships and their actions.
Prohibition was notorious for increasing the crime and murder rates, allowing the shift for public embrace (and abuse) of harder edged liquors and increasing government expenditure regarding law enforcement (not to mention the corruption that erupted in the force). Hillcoat seems content in allowing these issues to evolve naturally out of the depiction of the situation itself, and rather focuses his energies on the rupturing of the brothers operation due to external institutional forces. After witnessing reputable city gangster Floyd Banner in action, younger brother Jack instantly seeks the gratification and attraction of this lifestyle and aims to reach it through ambitious expansion and the projection of a wealthy and notorious character to those around town. He embodies a capitalist outlook, one which forever seeks to gain through any means necessary, yet ultimately sustains their wealth on a falseness of character. Jack’s older brother Forrest truly is a reputable and feared figure who maintains a traditionalist outlook, content with the controllable variables of a small time business. His close-lipped confidence is at stark odds with Jack’s fish-out-of-water reservations, yet his quiet determinism is challenged upon Deputy Rakes’ ruthless tactics and new world techniques. Forrest’s world is that of a conventional machismo, one where brute force and inner strength are enough to succeed. However as the film purports, this is a world that is slowly being replaced by an illusion of wealth and reconfigured power distribution, as that which separates city and country begins to fade.
With its thematic concerns rightly constructed, it is a shame therefore that the film’s major failure is that of its construction and filmic concerns. As Lawless interweaves between its multi-narrative structure we become witness to relationships that either evolve of no consequence or resolve themselves in predictable fashion. Both Jack and Forrest embark on romantic endeavours (with differing degrees of involvement and impact), yet neither seem wholly contributable to the rounding out of these characters trajectories, nor any further thematic exploration. The film also seems to be temporally challenged, with its general narrative flow seeming somewhat incoherent in moments resulting in a generally fragmented experience. Although these concerns aren’t of major consequence, their presence prevents Lawless from breaking out of its already modest stylistic concerns and rather than becoming a picture to pay attention to, it merely becomes a film of general pleasantries with some interesting observations on culture and societal structure.
Lawless is out now in General Release.
Written by Simon Di Berardino