For an encore after their collaboration in the acclaimed "outback western" The Proposition, director John Hillcoat and screenwriter/musician Nick Cave go for broke with a gangster period piece based on writer Matt Bondurant's own family history of moonshine bootlegging during the Prohibition. On the surface, Lawless is a picture-postcard gangster movie that marks Mr. Hillcoat's ascent into the US indie major leagues: a solid cast of breakout character actors top-billed by Shia Labeouf, backing from Megan Ellison's Annapurna outfit and Hollywood big shots Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher. But in fact that ascent took place with his previous film, the harrowing adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic novel The Road. 

     Lawless is more of a tonier update of Messrs. Hillcoat and Cave's previous collaboration, retaining its explosive violence and exploring both the screenwriter's fascination with the rural mythical Southern America and the director's interest in looking beyond the surface of lost worlds. In this case, perfectly recreated 1930s Franklin County, where the three Bondurant brothers run a successful moonshine operation under the eyes of the local law enforcement until a sadistic FBI man is sent in to either tame or shut down the bootleggers. However, what comes out is, surprisingly, a rougher, smarter yet pretty standard coming-of-age tale: Jack (an excellent Mr. Labeouf), the youngest of the three brothers, who idolizes both his older brother Forrest's (Tom Hardy) watchful, taciturn wisdom and Chicago mobster Floyd Banner's (Gary Oldman) insouciant flamboyance, attemps to navigate his own path between both while building his own place in the operation and finding himself attracted to preacher's daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska).

     Though the writing is solid, the handling strikes a delicate balance between sincere homage to and modern take on genre, and the performances are mostly nuanced, there's always a sense that a significant part of the film was left on the cutting-room floor. Most other characters are given short shrift to become mere archetypes (namely the other two Bondurant brothers) or exist as mere cameos (Mr. Oldman's gangster, present in only a couple of scenes, being the most egregious offender), becoming mere supporting players in what should by all accounts be an ensemble piece. It's true that it's through Jack's eyes that everything is seen - hence the glorious cinematography by Benoît Delhomme that suggests the golden hues of the last seasons of teenage life and the almost heroic looking up to the elders at a formative moment - but the wonderfully thoughtful ending and some of the better, atmospheric set pieces throughout unveil what could have been another movie. Not necessarily a better or worse one, but one where family and local colour aren't mere backdrops to the coming-of-age story.

Cast: Shia Labeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Dane de Haan, Guy Pearce, Noah Taylor, Lew Temple, Bill Camp

Director: John Hillcoat
Screenplay: Nick Cave, from the novel by Matt Bondurant, The Wettest County in the World
Cinematography: Benoît Delhomme (colour, processing by Technicolor, widescreen)
Music: Mr. Cave, Warren Ellis
Designer: Chris Kennedy
Costumes: Margot Wilson
Editor: Dylan Tichenor
Producers: Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Michael Benaroya, Megan Ellison (Benaroya Pictures, Red Wagon Entertainment, Annapurna Pictures, Blumhansonallen Film, Pie Films in association with Filmnation Entertainment)
USA, 2012, 116 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), October 25th 2012


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