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Lawless (18)
Vue, Islington
30th August 2012

★★★☆☆

While caught up in any moment during Lawless, whether that be a particularly gory fight, a perfectly-timed guttural grunt from Tom Hardy or simply seeing Shia LaBeouf get repeatedly smacked in the face, it's hard not to like. It's very much a boy's film, with men doing nasty things to each other (and occasionally women) and it's sort of screwy in its shlock-wrapped-in-respectability style.

But taking the time to process what you've just seen as opposed to simply going along with it reveals a largely inconsistent film, a summer blockbuster with delusions of grandeur. Sure it looks pretty and delivers a few thrills but tries (unsuccessfully) to be something slightly more, intellectualising mythology and the romance of good ol' boys smashing the system. If it wasn't based on Matt Bondurant's semi-fictional book The Wettest County in the West, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was based on a comic book, as it has more than a few shades of A History of Violence or Road to Perdition.

Of course, man's inhumanity to man is nothing that director/screenwriter combo John Hillcoat and Nick Cave haven't tackled before, both in their individual work and their previous collaboration in this configuration with The Proposition. They don't really offer anything new here that hasn't been seen in that or Hillcoat's excellent and faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. All the gore, gallows humour and menace is just as evident in Cave's body of work - especially in his work with The Bad Seeds and fascination with Macheath, aka Mack The Knife, from Brecht's Threepenny Opera.

Here, three bootlegger brothers Jack (LaBeouf), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Forrest Bondurant (Hardy) find their business under threat by the local authorities, in the shape of Mason Wardell (Tim Tomlin) and Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) who want a part of their profits. When Forrest doesn't take too kindly to Rakes' interference and snubs the offer, well, in the words of another American period piece, there will be blood.

And lots of it. Unflinchingly. Remember that awful The Killer Inside Me abuse scene, when Casey Affleck's Lou Ford knocks seven bells out of Jessica Alba? Yeah, like that, but worse.

It's certainly Cave's wicked sense of amusement at the bloodletting that is pushed to the fore, resulting in an imprint on the film that goes beyond his 'screenwriter' and 'music by' credits. In fact, it's so much Cave's film that I'm surprised he didn't get a producer or exec producer nod. That's not to say the script is teeming with life, because it's not. All of the actors work well with what they've got, but what they've got is at times slim, with lacklustre characterisation and non-existent motivation for some characters. There are a few brilliant interactions, but these are buried beneath the spectacle and silliness.

Hardy's shambling Frankenstein's monster in Forrest is one of the highlights. He's equal parts swagger and awkward, with a shambling John Wayne walk which gets visibly more contorted as he shrugs off death time and time again. Like with Bane in The Dark Knight Rises and the titular Bronson, Hardy's strength lies in these hulking, quasi-mythical creations. But here, he's as funny as he is menacing, the aforementioned groan being used to express everything from disapproval to surprise to pain with precise comic timing.

I found this to be LaBeouf's finest role to date, perhaps due to the wish fulfillment on my part in his constant, severe facial trauma, or maybe the stellar cast brought out the best in him. His success in hardening himself is believable and one of the better character arcs. The usually sublime Jessica Chastain is mostly wasted as Hardy's love interest, and initially Pierce seems like he's out of a different film. He snarls, chews the scenery and is so hammy the tickets should be sold with apple sauce.

As a master of scene setting, Hillcoat is once again successful in evoking the time and place. But the rest of the direction is reserved and certainly nothing flashy. Fights are realistic and brutal, even when set against the cartoony characters and increasingly outlandish situations, but the realism of the era serves to create an uncanny valley effect between background and story, making the whole thing just, well, odd.

Something unforgivable, though, is the criminal underuse of Gary Oldman. Not just that as gangster Floyd Banner he's not really in it that much (he's not) but the problems go deeper. After a flashy, fantastic entrance, he serves basically no function and is dropped entirely after the halfway mark. There's making sure you don't gild the lily and then there's not realising one of your biggest assets. When he's on-screen, he's his usual magnetic self, but when offscreen you really miss him. Especially as Pearce's borderline Judge Doom style officer becomes the main antagonist.

Which leads me to the ending. No spoilers, other than to say it's disappointing to say the least. To counter Pearce's overblown evil (he snaps necks, shoots with impunity, rapes young black girls without a second thought) a fate must await him that is befitting for such a man. And, well, you'll see...

So it's not that Lawless is bad. It's simply that it's just another popcorn flick to enjoy in the moment and nothing more. It's an exhilarating ride, but when it's all over, you realise you were maybe just going 40mph in a Ford Cortina rather than 180 in a Lamborghini. And with the talent on board, could have been so much more.

Lawless was released in the UK on 7th September 2012.

Nearest tube station: Angel (Northern)



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