2012 Cannes: Lawless Capsule Review: Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf's Crowd-Pleasing Crime Thriller
As well as a frontrunner in the awards stakes, the festival has found a true crowd-pleaser with John Hillcoat's Lawless, a lovingly constructed Prohibition-era crime flick. The film, while not exactly my cup of tea, is an ably made revenge drama, with wonderful bursts of dark humour, a splendidly evil turn by Guy Pearce as the obligatory baddie, and in Tom Hardy's Forrest Bondurant, an immediately classic character who in the screening I just saw, won over the audience to the point that they were actually applauding him by the end of the film. That was a little weird. Nevertheless, if the wild enthusiasm generated by the film is anything to go by, it may have a solid future as a mainstream cross-over hit.
Lawless centers on the Bondurant brothers (played by Hardy, Jason Clarke and Shia LaBeouf), three tough and essentially right-on hillbillies who amiably hawk their moonshine around the county in the late 1920s, with the tacit agreement of the local police. When a new county prosecutor arrives on the scene, assisted by the foppish and plain evil Guy Pearce, the brothers have to raise their game somewhat and step up to the bullies. LaBeouf plays the younger brother, essentially the hero of the piece, who grows to recognise his own inner core of strength through the course of the film, finally coming to earn his brothers' respect as he throws aside his earlier cowardice; Hardy plays the gruffly lovable, seriously-can-nothing-kill-this-guy older brother, and Jason Clarke, well, he's another brother. We don't care about him so much. Hardy and LaBeouf hook up with Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska respectively, in two narrative threads that never really hit home emotionally, although there's a pleasing chemistry between Hardy and Chastain.
If I have a problem with the film, it's a problem that lovers of crime and genre films don't want to hear about, because it ruins the fun with the guns and stuff: namely, the film doesn't address the nature of the violence itself, and never stops to question how the gore and brutality it often revels in (a throat-slitting scene; a ball-cutting scene) is a completely masculine construct that is senseless and disgusting. This is a slight problem, because the picture does ask us to believe in its characters and their motivations, so you can't really brush aside their embracing of violence and the way the film glories in the fun and excitement of fighting. In a key moment, one of the brothers' key collaborators is brutally killed, which is supposed to provide an emotional catalyst, but does Nick Cave (on script-writing duties here) not pause to reflect that the same violence has been done to many other characters who share that person's basic humanity?
This is perhaps a minor quibble since everything that the film sets out to do -- tell a good story, with fine performances, in a painstakingly constructed era that is beautifully lit and filmed -- it does very well. The film is also clearly making a bid for the big time in its O Brother -influenced soundtrack, with fine country music alongside performances by Cave and his band with Mark Lanegan and Emmylou Harris on vocal duties. All in all, it's a very enjoyable picture, and one that I think will meet with great success.