As a director, John Hillcoat seems drawn to stories of men willing to do increasingly horrible things to each other out of devotion to a twisted sense of honor. His latest film, Lawless, puts his characters’ willingness to define their own worlds right in the title, but each of his movies has been about small clusters of society that create their own social order, from the wasteland survivors of The Road to the bandits and brutal cops of The Proposition. What makes these movies so good — and what makes Hillcoat so good at telling these types of stories — is the way he focuses less on the chaos of such legally unencumbered cliques and more on the dread that comes from never knowing how far the other guy will go. Lawless has some of the most unnerving scenes I’ve seen in a movie this year precisely because Hillcoat knows just how to make the most of the tension between what’s happened and what might still occur. These men have no rules but their own, and even those change by the hour. Lawless takes place in the American south almost a century ago, but it may as well be Mars for all it resembles the world we know.
The film also draws power as the latest collaboration between Hillcoat and writer/musician Nick Cave. This is Cave’s third writing credit for Hillcoat and his fifth as composer, and their mix of Gothic violence and damnable heathens remains as potent as ever. It’s not quite like anything else. There’s nothing safe about the movie, and no feeling that any of the people on screen can do much to save themselves from the ruin all around them. One character tells another that the world is something that happens to and around them, not something they can control, and Lawless mines that helplessness in amazing ways. The somewhat shaggy story revolves around the Bondurant brothers — Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) — who run a gas station and saloon that doubles as the headquarters for their moonshine operations. It’s 1931 in Franklin County, Virginia, and the men are resigned to their fates as outlaws and bootleggers destined to fight anyone who gets in their way. There’s almost a kind of existential boredom undercutting their doom: this is just the way life is, so why try to change it?
The catalyst for change comes in the form of Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a fastidious and possibly sociopathic lawman down from Chicago who’s working with the local authorities to tighten up the moonshine trade. He doesn’t want to shut it down, though. This isn’t a movie about swaggering feds following the letter of the law while thick-headed but noble woodsmen try to outsmart them to defend their way of life. No, Rakes is there to extort the men making homemade liquor and make sure the law gets its cut. Lawless doesn’t worry about things like good vs. evil, or rather, it realizes that the problem is more complicated. Most people are self-interested above all, and the film’s strength is the way it charts the conflict between two increasingly hostile groups of people who just want their way. The locals treat Prohibition as a joke, and the cops don’t have any laws but the ones they can get away with breaking. It’s the battle between Rakes and the Bondurants that gives the film its drive and sends it spiraling toward inevitably violent ends.
The Bondurant boys can be trouble, but Rakes is a holy terror. Pearce plays him with the kind of sneering menace he always seems to keep just below the surface, at turns calmly dispatching of his enemies and then shaking with rage at their insolence. He’s responsible for most of the film’s unease and discord simply because he’s capable of anything. One of the eeriest scenes finds him in his hotel room, brushing his hair and cleaning his face, while a young black woman sits on his bed, naked, a sheet of newspaper between her backside and the sheets. What happened right before we came in? What was he doing? What’s wrong with him? Cave and Hillcoat don’t get into it, wisely knowing that even a sick truth can’t be as bad as the lie you invent to try and make the moment make sense. There’s a weird beauty to the scene, too. Hillcoat and Proposition cinematographer Benoit Delhomme make sure every moment is painterly and gorgeous, from the gentle glimpse of the woman’s arm to the tighter focus on Pearce as he examines himself in the mirror. Everything about it feels just slightly surreal, which makes it that much harder to look away or dismiss.
And there are plenty of times you want to look away. Like Hillcoat’s earlier work, Lawless has moments of shockingly graphic violence, made all the more arresting and upsetting for the frank and even genteel way Hillcoat lets the bloodshed unfold. When Rakes corners Jack early on at a liquor still out in the woods, he beats him with a savagery we’re not remotely expecting, and Hillcoat doesn’t dress it up with smash cuts or loud music. There’s no score at all, actually. There’s just violence, and weakness, and an unflinching commitment to a story about perversely dedicated men. At other moments, though, the film is almost hauntingly beautiful, whether tracking through kudzu fields or gently photographing a snowy night in the hills. There’s one shot that’s stayed with me for reasons I’m not even sure I understand. The Bondurants are aided in the running of their shop by Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a former city dweller looking for a quiet life. One evening after closing, she’s sitting at the bar keeping watch over things, the wide frame lit only by a pair of dangling lanterns and whatever light hits her face as she turns toward the camera. It’s maybe two seconds. It didn’t have to look that nice; it could’ve been done a lot more simply and still communicated the same basic narrative information, but Hillcoat opts as always for the ability to tell a small emotional story as well, this time of a woman who’s still a little lost and only beginning to make her home there. The film has a number of small but wonderful moments like that.
It works, too. It’s not just an exercise, or a bored genre riff. Lawless is a moving, insidious crime drama that shows the real cost of the lifestyle, as well as the emotional toll of throwing off the shackles of society and telling yourself that the best way to enforce the law is to beat someone to death with it. It’s an accessible, smart movie that plays to solid character moments and even makes room for (admittedly dark) humor from time to time. Forrest is all brute strength and no introspection, and Hardy’s probably the only actor who could bring so much emotion to such a monosyllabic role. LaBeouf’s surprisingly strong, too, precisely because he’s not afraid to be so weak. Jack’s a hothead, but he’s also a lot smaller than his brothers, and he spends most of the movie getting his ass handed squarely to him. When he has his first run-in with Rakes, he isn’t sarcastic or even quietly defiant. Rather, he suffers the beating as best he can, eventually crying “No more,” dripping tears and blood onto the grass. There’s no honor here, just a raw exposed wound on the soul of the world, and Hillcoat isn’t afraid to look at it.
There’s a mournful quality to Lawless, a willingness to juxtapose beauty and sadness, that makes it compelling. Part of it is knowing that Prohibition would be repealed in 1933, rendering moot the turf wars that engulfed so many clans like the Bondurants. But the bigger part is Hillcoat’s attraction to myth, and the visually arresting way he brings that myth to life. The screenplay is based on a novel by Matt Bondurant, two generations descended from the men at the heart of the story, but his account was already a fictionalized version of the way things were. Hillcoat’s film is one step further, a story both larger than life and rooted in the basest of desires. The Bondurant boys think they’re indestructible, legends in their own time. Hillcoat makes you understand why. More than that: he makes you believe it, too.