The latest release from the Australian writer/director team of Nick Cave and John Hillcoat, Lawless (2012) features a gang of famous faces including Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce. Sharing some of the characteristics of their previous work, the duo have once again utilised extreme violence in their storytelling – albeit this time with a glossy Hollywood sheen – for an adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest County in the World.
Set in Virginia during the depression, Lawless follows the Bondurant brothers as they bootleg their way to a small fortune. Whilst tough older brother Forrest (Hardy) is focused on his business rather than waitress Maggie (Chastain), younger brother Jack (LaBeouf) relentlessly courts church girl Bertha (Wasikowska). Things become dangerous when Special Agent and all round sadist Charlie Rakes (Pearce) is denied a cut of the brothers’ profits.
Hillcoat’s efficient direction makes for an entertaining experience. Not so much playing with audience expectation as delaying the inevitable, Lawless creates tension by prolonging plot points so obvious they may as well as have been carved onto the opening credits. This technique may not be the most admirable, but it certainly succeeds; as audiences will be gripped by sequences positively soaked in dramatic irony. The cast are likeable enough, in particular a charismatic Hardy, who effortlessly demands viewer allegiance through his considered stoicism and moral behaviour.
As you would expect from a film about a group of violent men, none fare worse than the women of the piece, who settle into the clichés of virgin and ruined woman. Whilst Wasikowska’s virgin is given no purpose other than to be wooed by LaBeouf, Chastain’s ruined woman receives worse treatment. The portrayal of violence is brutal and unrelenting with the notable exception of two instances against Chastain. Their importance is undermined by their absence and a lack of sufficient emphasis on their consequences. When the truth finally emerges, it serves only to further motivate an already angered Hardy.
Hillcoat’s Lawless is an entertaining, yet unoriginal crime drama. Whilst featuring some enjoyable performances and enough sporadic tension to keep the audience on their toes, the average script ensures that the film is memorable only for its remarkably poor representations of women.