The violence is kept onscreen in John Hillcoat's “Lawless.” He never shies away from it, which is really one of the key things you need to make a good movie about gangsters in lawless times in America.
The other thing you need is a good shootout. The movie succeeds beautifully on one of these counts. The other, though, muddies what might have been a much more intense showdown. Still, you can always be sure of one thing: There will be blood.
But that is really the film's only major weakness, and perhaps it can be forgiven for the good that it does offer, namely the performances — Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Shia Labeouf, Mia Wasikowska and a brilliant, if underused, Gary Oldman.
Watching this ensemble makes “Lawless” yet another winner in the Cannes main competition, though the story is somewhat thin compared to some of the other films that have played here. Hillcoat is at his best working with actors, and can draw from them vulnerability, as well as the monsters within.
The film based on a true story about three brothers, the Bondurants, who run a profitable bootlegging business as the law tries to cut in on their profits.
If the movie is about Prohibition, it is also about American history, the reckless and abandoned ways we used to get ahead way back then, and sometimes still do. It's funny to watch LaBeouf in this incarnation, after playing a shark in "Wall Street" and an action star in the "Transformers" movies. Here, we get to see him be an actor again, playing a dreamer without the cunning of his other two brothers.
But you can't do much when you're acting opposite Tom Hardy, who can't help but steal every scene he's in. Bulked up for his “Dark Knight” role, Hardy seethes, grunts and stalks around — reminiscent of Brando. It is no wonder that Jessica Chastain throws herself at him when he won't make the first move.
The good news about having Nick Cave adapt the screenplay (from the novel “The Wettest County,” by Matt Bondurant) is that you also get Nick Cave doing the music. The movie is helped along greatly by Cave's song selection and the musicians who perform those songs, Emmylou Harris among them. I'd sit through the film again just to hear the music, and if there is a soundtrack to be purchased, it should do very well.
The script works well enough, crumbling only during the climax. The rest of the time, it's more than engaging watching these actors work together, in those costumes, those sets, that scenery. Sometimes it's refreshing to watch Hollywood films after seeing so many low-budget foreign films, with their hand-held cameras and natural sets. Here we get to see a real production at work, and that alone sets “Lawless” apart here in Cannes.
Two women touch the lives of the Bondurant boys. Chastain plays a runaway stripper trying to remake her life — she doesn't get a lot to do but makes the most of her screen time. Wasikowska plays a preacher's daughter pursued by LaBeouf. Her face, lovely without a stitch of makeup, has the look and feel of the time, but she doesn't have much to do either except bat her eyelashes at LaBeouf. Both of these actresses deserve better — the writing fails them, stuffing them into easy archetypes.
The film's standout is Guy Pearce as an corrupt lawman who wears perfume, bleaches his eyebrows and keeps his hands protected with leather gloves. Pearce owns the screen, Dennis Hopper style. You never quite know what he'll do next. In one scene he's fixing himself in the mirror while a naked black woman cries on his bed. Why is she crying? We have no idea, but it’s probably sinister.
The movie gets tangled up around itself by the time it gets to the final shootout. The shootout could have been fought and won in five minutes but it's dragged out in a way that doesn't seem to make any sense. But it is saved, mostly, by the way it ends, which I won't spoil here.
There are, come to think of it, a few things that don't end up making sense. But you'll probably find you're either with the movie or against it. Even with its flaws, "Lawless" will be one of the most anticipated films of the year, and, thanks to the ensemble cast, one of the most memorable.