Lawless: lots of gore, nothing more

Filmmaking duo Hillcoat and Cave aim for something profound with their gangster flick, but they end up producing macho escapism.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Culture

Director John Hillcoat and music legend-turned-screenwriter Nick Cave have forged a formidable filmmaking team in the past few years. Having collaborated previously on music videos and soundtracks, 2005 saw the Australian anglophiles storm the film world with The Proposition, a brutal and thrilling take on the American western set in the outback of late nineteenth-century Australia. Now, with Lawless, the duo has looked to find something fresh within another well-worn American genre, the gangster movie.

Lawless takes place during the height of prohibition – the time of Al Capone, Tommy Guns and pin-stripe suits. But instead of cashing in on such classic gangster fodder, the film focuses instead on those on the bottom rung of 1920s organised crime – the bootleggers of the Appalachian Mountains. Based on a true-story novel, The Wettest County in the World, it tells the story of the Bondurant brothers’ exploits which fast became entrenched in the folklore of Franklin, Virginia, where they peddled their jars of moonshine.

Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) is eager to get in on the family business run by his bruiser older brothers Forest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke). Inspired by the cigar-chewing gangsters of the inner city, he hopes to expand their backwoods operation but his brothers are convinced their scrawny and squeamish little brother is only suited to driving the truck from one barn dance to the next and refuse to entertain his ideas. Emasculated, Jack defies his brothers and heads to Chicago to strike a deal with legendary mobster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), only to find that being a ‘made man’ comes with a hefty price.

Never quite succumbing to mere moralising, the best gangster films manage to balance the glamour of the outlaw with the inimitable decadence and monstrousness of the business. Lawless seeks to walk a similar line but ends up being mere hyper-masculine escapism.

From the outset, the film is chock-full of bone-crunching violence. Yet as many times as we see Forest pound in the skulls of assailants with his signature knuckle-dusters, the Bondurants insist that they’re out to hurt no one. It is only when provoked by opportunistic stick-up men or the arrival of a sadistic special agent from Chicago called Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) – who declares open war on them – that they have to get their hands dirty. If anything, it is Jack’s gangster bravado that escalates the violence.

However, soon the film totally contradicts itself and holds up blood-lust as a necessary rite of passage. Early on in the film, Jack is savagely beaten by Rakes and it is only when he finally has the guts to strike back that he is able to transition into manhood. The flimsy love interests played by Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain seem increasingly responsive to Jack and Forest’s romantic overtures the more head smashing they are privy to, and the final scenes end on an incredibly cosy and domestic note. In this sense, Lawless feels more like a coming-of-age story than anything else, and this manages to take all of the sting out of the terse and gory scenes that came before.

Any sense of previous realism is completely undercut and the performances do little to help matters. Not only are the southern accents particularly dodgy but Guy Pearce’s Rakes is woefully pantomimic, pitching his, for some reason, eyebrow-less villain somewhere between Niles Crane and Hannibal Lecter.

Lawless remains the sort of film that is only truly enjoyable for its unashamed gore and impenetrable machismo. This would be completely excusable if it weren’t for the fact that it’s pretty apparent this wasn’t the kind of story Hillcoat and Cave intended to tell.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Lawless here:

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