James A. George, our film critic, on Lawless
Wettest County in the World. The Bondurant brothers run a moonshine bootlegging operation in Franklin County, Virginia. Adapted from Matt Bondurant's 2008 novel The Wettest County in the World about his grandfather and great-uncles is the last collaboration between director John Hillcoat and part-time screenwriter Nick Cave. This collaboration resulted in the most outstanding western of recent decades, The Proposition in 2005. Along with Warren Ellis, Cave is also responsible for Hillcoat’s soundtracks and hence the most interesting sound and vision marriage in art that somehow stares the bleakest subjects in the eye and makes them compelling.
Hillcoat is an artist that really loves the canvas he gets to work with. Every inch of the widescreen is used carefully and often characters will appear a lot nearer to the edge of the frame than is standard, allowing the audience to take in a lot of information at once and yet feel uneasy about the odd composition. The heartfelt technicality of cinematography, production, costume and acting is astute and precise with detail. The cast in fact is so enthralling that it would serve as an ideal time capsule of the current crème de la crème of American acting.
Tom Hardy plays Forrest, keeping his hands in his grandma-esque cardigan pockets and grunts awkwardly when presented with a naked woman yet the brooding living legend stands hunches over nonchalantly when confronted with the law. He knows he need not inspire fear, he is fully aware of his status as a local living legend. What could’ve been a risky take on the character is done as Tom Hardy could, and as an impressive an acting feat mirrored in the editing that juxtaposes horrific violence with gorgeous countryside. Shia Labeouf as the main protagonist Jack has almost redeemed his vacuous presence on screen yet doesn’t shine convincingly enough among the calibre of Guy Pearce and Gary Oldman.
The female characters portrayed by Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain are unfortunately under served and their stories seem equally interesting yet unexplored. The element of mystery surrounding Chastain’s Maggie aid the character somewhat and the story that exists is interesting enough and it is far from the actresses’ fault as they deliver, but rather the two actresses don’t get nearly enough screen time. Before the hectic last few scenes, all the characters seem violent and malcontent and all gangland hierarchy seems to collapse, perhaps fitting with how the last battle unfolds. What originally defines the brothers is the fear surrounding them and the horrific violence they can create, but by the end of the film it seems that everyone is capable of this. The only difference is the prohibition law, and as it is explained in the film, only years later does the alcohol ban get lifted.
Whether this is intentional or not, the ending gives the impression Hillcoat and Cave were either reigned in by Hollywood or aimed for the mainstream. To their credit, many times the events I thought I had predicted would take a sudden twist I did not see coming.The film is very good but considering how interesting an artist Nick Cave is and the master class in filmmaking Hillcoat presents us with, it just doesn’t quite pay off. I felt distant and never quite passionate enough about what was unfolding in front of me. The story is all a little murky and the stakes are never realized. It is most certainly flawed but still an accomplished work and as mentioned before, Hillcoat is truly a filmmaker deserving of large canvas and cinema projection is the ideal way to see this wild ride.