Cannes Review: John Hillcoat’s ‘Lawless’ Is a Perfect Modern Western

By  · Published on May 19th, 2012

In Lawless, John Hillcoat has almost crafted the perfect modern Western, infusing more explicitly the gangster genre elements that always occur in the genre, but never quite so explicitly. The film follows the Bondurant brothers – Jack (Shia Labeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) – rise as the most famous bootleggers in sun-dried Prohibition-era Virginia, and the government’s attempts to stop them.

The government’s chief agent is Guy Pearce’s Charlie Rakes, a flamboyant looking, but profoundly villainous Special Deputy, let off his leash when the Bondurants, lead by Hardy’s powerhouse Forrest refuse to pay a monthly toll on their illegal activities.

While it may sound like an all guns-blazing, epic Prohibition-era Western, the story, adapted well from Matt Bondurant’s historical novel by Nick Cave (who also once again offers a superlative score) focuses on human stories to add poignancy and depth to the more explosive sequences.

But when they do come, the violent moments are graphic and profoundly affecting, punctuating what is otherwise a slow-burning tale of intrigue that thrives on the performances of its incredible cast and the dynamics and relationships they create for their characters.

This year at Cannes is the year of the ensemble cast, with impressive looking lists on four of the major pictures included, and Lawless certainly disappoint that observation. Hillcoat’s film collects a barrel-load of auspicious talents, and applies them extremely impressively. In almost every case, actors wear their characters like exquisitely tailored suits with such success that it feels not only like the roles were created specifically with them in mind, but also that they were made to play them.

Even in the cases of Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce – seasoned pros in comparison with some of their fellows – it feels wrong that neither have played a role anything like this before.

Oldman’s role is no more than a cameo: his uptown Chicago mob boss appearing in just two crucial scenes, fleetingly excellent and suggesting for Hollywood just how good a more conventional Prohibition era gangster flick with him in the lead might be.

But of the two – and indeed of the entire cast – Pearce stands out as the best performance by some distance, effusing super-human menace with a venomous undercurrent that belies his almost effeminate physical performance. In that respect he has a lot in common with Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, whose mantle as the most sinister, viscerally affecting villain Pearce unceremoniously and justifiably pinches here.

It might seem too early at this stage to say it, but Pearce deserves to be considered for at least the longlist for next year’s Best Supporting Actor award, and he might well find himself in the company of some of his fellow Lawless actors.

All three of the Bondurant brothers are excellent, sharing the responsibilities of the roles equally well, though Shia Labeouf arguably carries more as the narrator/protagonist proper. He is brilliant, defying any reservations based on past associations (with such dross as Transformers) with an emotionally pricked, occasionally swaggering performance as the youngest and most fragile Bondurant brother.

It is in his character that the chief gangster film are visible: he holds the same aspirational desires as the best gangster anti-heroes, burning with ambition and happy to wear the spoils of his work as trophies in the same way that Ray Liotta’s peacock-like Henry Hill in Goodfellas. But despite the bravado, Labeouf is best in the more emotional scenes, and the decision to play most of the film’s major events through his eyes, or at least through his emotional filter is hugely rewarding.

Alongside him, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke play more obviously traditional Western characters – Hardy speaks only sparingly, preferring his presence and actions to do his talking with irresistible results, and Clarke is probably the best of the three as broken, boozed up Howard.

All three wear the scars and efforts of their characters well, especially Clarke, and they are anti-heroes that the audience can really care about, even despite some of the more vicious acts they commit.

Jessica Chastain meanwhile continues to make acting look incredibly easy as one of only two female characters, adding heart and balance to the more barbaric sequences and giving Tom Hardy’s Forrest an additional facet that grows wonderfully thanks to Hardy’s own subtle, powerful performance.

There are few actors currently working who bring so much to roles with so little obvious action: the still river runs deep with him, and he brings a physical presence, and a silent but explosive animalistic element to this role that adds further expectations for his huge take on Bane.

In such an impressive and broad cast, it would be easy to overlook the smaller components, but each are just as worthy of note as Pearce and the Bondurant trio. Mia Wasikowska’s character might have a crucial functionality for Labeouf’s aspirational hood, but she brings a delicate touch that makes Bertha much more than that. Bill Camp and Bruce McKinnon are great in the thankless task of local sheriff’s, and Dane DeHaan is excellent as bootlegging genius Cricket, the unlikely heart of Jack Bondurant’s story arc.

The setting plays its part as well, framed by Hillcoat’s excellent eye for a shot and careful dedication to creating exactly the right dusty aesthetic as well as the artful execution of Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography. Add to that Nick Cave’s exceptional score, whose identity swells as the film progresses, and adds feverish heat to the more fiendish scenes, and it all makes for a beautifully executed period piece.

Though the violent punctuations burn brightly and affectingly, Lawless is an artfully crafted film with subtle elegance, a moonshine drenched aesthetic and a set of performances that lift it well beyond any film that has ever aspired to retell the Prohibition story.

The Upside: Guy Pearce’s performance is the stand-out of a very strong collective.

The Downside: Gary Oldman doesn’t get nearly enough screentime, though he is extremely effective in the limited time he does have.

Complete Cannes 2012 Coverage