Friday 7 September 2012

"Lawless" (Moviemail 07/09/12)

There’s a heavy element of male posturing about Lawless, director John Hillcoat and musician-screenwriter Nick Cave’s tale of bootlegging brothers in Depression-era Virginia. Everybody growls their dialogue from deep down in their throat or out of the side of their mouth – which, after Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, gives rise to Tom Hardy’s secondmost unintelligible performance of 2012 – and Hillcoat allows his actors one or two defining props or tics per person. Playing the Bondurant clan’s eldest Forrest, Hardy sports a stylish cardigan-and-cigar combo for much of the film’s running time. Guy Pearce, giving his first truly bad performance as the deputy trying to shoot our boys down, is working from under an angle-grinder haircut, a bow tie, and odd blonde eyebrows that mark his character down as an antagonistic creep even before he hands out a brutal kicking to youngest brother Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf), who at this point isn’t even part of his siblings’ operation.

The kicking, and punching, and shooting, is essential to the effectiveness of Cage’s plotting. Every wince we make when some tough or other lays into our heroes is meant to make it easier for us to cheer when the brothers fight back; the film is structured around the making of a man, turning LaBeouf’s wimpy kid into a charging bull via such charming pursuits as the delivery of a pair of severed testicles to Pearce’s hotel room. Dollars to doughnuts, if you asked Hillcoat and Cave to list their favourite filmmakers, Peckinpah would show up sooner or later, but theirs is an uncritical and problematic reading of Uncle Sam’s filmography, suggesting as it does that the cinema hasn’t moved on (save, maybe, technically) in some four decades. Violence and vengeance were the beginning and end of Hillcoat’s earlier Cave collaborations Ghosts… of the Civil Dead and The Proposition, but those films exhibited greater narrative intelligence in lurching from one extreme to the other; all Lawless has to lumber towards is a silly, fly-specked stand-off and a decidedly unpersuasive final image of family life.

The general knuckle-dragging gives the women nothing to do, save to be pawed or otherwise imperilled by the growling alphas around them. This is a particular waste of Jessica Chastain as the best dressed barkeep in Thirties America, whose (inferred) rape gives us the first inkling our bloodlust is being pandered to; when the sanctity of devout, corn-fed girl-next-door Mia Wasikowska is threatened, we’re meant to take up the pitchforks and flaming torches unreservedly. Such heavy-handed plotting is a shame, as Lawless is nothing if not a handsome production, very nearly as pernickety as Pearce’s character in its attention to period detail – in part, one supposes, to make the pummelled faces and throat-punching register all the more forcefully. Consider it Hillcoat and Cave’s own brand of moonshine: potent in gulps, but all too crudely filtered, and just as likely to leave a bad taste in the mouth as it is to intoxicate.

Lawless opens nationwide today.

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