Last night I went along to the UK preview of prohibition-era drama Lawless. Followed by a live Q&A session with director John Hillcoat, screenwriter Nick Cave and star Noah Taylor it was a fascinating night.  So here’s my big review plus the best of the analysis from the event – word-count alert, this is going to be a long one!

Based on the novel by Matt Bondurant, The Wettest Country In The World, Lawless is an account of the infamous Bondurant brothers (Howard, Forrest and Jack) and their bid to maintain control of their own bootlegging business in Franklin County, Virginia.. The idea for the novel was sparked by a pair of knuckledusters hanging on the wall of a relatives home that caught the eye of Jack Bondurant’s grandson Matt.

Matt writes in his author’s note, ‘The basics of this story are drawn from various family stories and anecdotes, newspaper headlines and articles and court transcripts … However, this historical information does not help us fully understand the central players in this story, at least in terms of their situation or what their thoughts were; all involved are now deceased and little record exists. There are no letters, and my grandfather and his brothers did not keep diaries. My task in writing this book was to fill in the blank spaces of known record. There are family stories … and these memories and stories are vague, and often specious at best, mixed with several decades of rumor, gossip and myth … My intention was to reach the truth that lies beyond the poorly recorded and understood world of actualities’.

And so the film also plays on this ‘legendary’ quality that surrounds the brothers. The myth that the brothers are invincible, even immortal, is nicely referenced in the dialogue of surrounding characters and director John Hillcoat highlights how Forrest in particular becomes ‘blinded by his own mythology’. There are other ‘legends’ in Lawless too, including Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) – an invented city gangster –  who inspires the youngest Bondurant, Jack, with his vision and purposefulness.

John Hillcoat, ‘was looking for an unfamiliar take on the gangster genre,’ when the idea for Lawless came about and says he liked the different ‘tonal ranges’ in the script, touching on the differences between the two romances in the film – the private relationship between Forrest and ex-show dancer Maggie (Jessica Chastain) and the young courtship between Jack and the priest’s daughter, Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska). Although preferring original script writing, Nick Cave was attracted to the idea of the adaptation as, ‘the dialogue [in the book] was to die for,’ adding that he liked how old school romance and brute violence play off each other throughout the story.

But Lawless is a movie that struggled to come to fruition. Pursuing the idea in 2008 when the economic recession hit hard, Hillcoat and Cave found themselves up against a wall with studios admitting they could only realistically finance franchises or comedies. The initial cast which featured Ryan Gosling, Michael Shannon and Amy Adams was lost – although Shia LaBeouf, keen to make a change from green screen acting, was always onboard.

Characters and casting

For a relatively small movie, Lawless has attracted a heavyweight cast. Hillcoat offered his views on why this was the case hailing the script and characterisation, ‘I think all actors want a role they can sink their teeth into – I think it’s as simple as that,’ adding that many of the cast members ‘have exploded in their careers since we made it’. Jessica Chastain, for instance, had been discovered in the theatre by Pacino but none of her films had been released at the time she was cast. Hillcoat describes the whole process as ‘very intense… it’s the shortest time I’ve had to make a movie… the actors really rallied under the circumstances’.

One of the most striking aspects of Lawless is its finely drawn characters. Each has their own complexities and foibles which have been carefully lingered on by director John Hillcoat.

Jack Bondurant aspires to the success, wealth and fame of the gangster lifestyle but is far too sensitive to deal with the realities of the role. Sheltered to some degree by his elder brothers we see Jack at a turning point in his life when he must step up in the family business or back away. Of all the performances in Lawless, Shia LaBeouf’s is the most extraordinary, representing the biggest step-up in his career to date and he impresses with a considered and skillful interpretation.

Tom Hardy’s performance as Forrest, the experienced bootlegger who holds both his family and their business together, is also exceptional. Believing his own legend, Forrest is also socially awkward and unable to articulate himself, demonstrating confidence in his business interactions but being markedly reserved when it comes to his relationship with women.

“Hillcoat concedes, ‘I have to hand it to Tom Hardy… it was incredibly audacious and he actually understood a bigger picture than I did when I was working on the film’”

Cast after Hillcoat saw him in Bronson, Tom Hardy impressed at an initial meeting with Hillcoat during his promotion for Inception. Hillcoat notes that even at this early stage he knew, ‘there was something special about this guy’. However, Hillcoat describes how Hardy made an ‘alarming choice early on about how he would play the character,’ that unnerved the director. Seeing Forrest as the matriarch of the Bondurant family, Hardy drew inspiration from obscure sources such as the grandmother in Tweetie-Pie and said he would like to play the role as ‘an old lesbian’. Hillcoat concedes, ‘I have to hand it to him… it was incredibly audacious and he actually understood a bigger picture than I did when I was working on the film’. On watching the movie, it is clear that Tom Hardy skillfully draws out the vulnerable, mother-hen side to this man who can be both brutal and vengeful, offering us something more unconventional for this type of picture.

Hardy’s ability to communicate with his audience non-verbally is stunning. Much of Forrest’s interactions are played out via a range of different grunts and gutteral sounds, all conveying very different meanings. Close up shots of the eyes and face also reveal Forrest’s inner conflicts. Cave further describes that although Forrest was always written as inarticulate, ‘Hardy took this to another level where he literally cannot articulate… what he did was brilliant’.

But Hardy was not the only actor to draw from the Loony Toons franchise. Noah Taylor (who plays Gummy Walsh, a member of Floyd Banner’s posse) describes how he worked tirelessly on a southern accent, only to realise during shooting that his character was from Chicago. ‘Bugs Bunny was the biggest Chicago accent I could find on Youtube’, he explains.

Although the characters were already developed in the book, Nick Cave concedes that he made major changes to some of the characters, most notably Special Deputy Charlie Rakes played by Guy Pearce. Cave describes how Pearce was interested in playing the role, ‘if we could make him more memorable’. He says, ‘in the novel, Rakes is a villain but of the nasty, bent copper variety’ and so the team worked with Pearce as they developed the character into something altogether different. Cave and Hillcoat reminisce about how Pearce himself developed Rakes’ individual look, sending a photo message with his eyebrows almost completely removed.

“Rakes is perhaps the most inconsistent character in Lawless – slipping between convincingly sinister and caricatural”

A ‘modern man’ who wears cologne, dresses fashionably and takes a dislike to getting blood on his white leather gloves, is this new interpretation of Rakes. But whether these changes to Rakes’ character were a success is likely to be a matter of debate. Rakes is perhaps the most inconsistent character in Lawless – slipping between convincingly sinister and caricatural – and we are given little insight into the motivations behind his behaviour.

Nonetheless, as Hillcoat adds ‘what I love about working with ensembles is that they bring stuff,’ which means constantly re-writing the script. As Cave describes, in the original script Forrest was written as ‘rail thin and snake-like’ but Hardy turned up, ‘like a bullock on his way to do Bane [in The Dark Knight Rises]’. Cave concludes, ‘it doesn’t matter what you put on the page, people are going to do what they will’. Cave also highlights that the comedy found in much of the film is not present in the script, ‘but some [scenes] are played for laughs by the cast’.  Noah Taylor also raised the importance of the organic nature of character development and overall mood in his scenes with Gary Oldman as ‘picking up whatever the natural relationship is between the characters’.

Lawless’ supporting cast is also very strong. Gary Oldman is the business in a tommy-gun shooting spree and there’s a solid performance from relative newcomer Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) as Cricket Pate. On Jason Clarke as Howard Bondurant, the heavy drinking brother emotionally damaged from the Great War, Hillcoat says, ‘he had a very different energy… he was very physical’.  Although arguably we don’t get to see enough of Maggie, Chastain compellingly evokes Maggie’s fibre and strength in all her scenes. Hillcoat says, ‘with all these alpha males, having Jessica Chastain was such a godsend’.

Soundtrack and cinematography

With a score composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, Lawless’ music is often gentle and haunting. Made up of ‘contemporary songs in a pseudo bluegrass style’, Cave explains how the decision to make Lawless a film with songs was made early on (preview the soundtrack here).

The visual style of Lawless is similarly beautiful. Sweeping landscapes as the film opens are superseded only by the landscape seen once more lit by the fires of secret brewing stills. Director of photography Benoit Delhomme succeeds in creating moody and atmospheric visuals that enhance the storytelling and make Lawless a visual feast to watch.

The attention to detail in Lawless is equally compelling and the make-up department excels. The Bondurant’s are brothers that wear the evidence of troubled lives on their faces and Jack’s bloodshot eyes after he is beaten by Rakes are particularly harrowing.

The violence of the prohibition era is not glossed over or glamorised, but is raw. A scene where Forrest has his throat cut was fought for inclusion vehemently by Hillcoat and Cave in the US, where footage of a sawing motion was considered too macabre. This said, Lawless is not so violent as to be off-putting. The film is ultimately character led and the violence is just one dimension of a much more powerful whole.

To epilogue or not to epilogue?

(Spoiler alert – please skip this section if you haven’t seen the movie)

The decision to end the film with an epilogue was a controversial one. Cave explains how ‘the epilogue became a battle ground where we had to fight on a daily basis’. He describes how they came up against ‘a whole bunch of people who didn’t want an epilogue,’ as they believed the Bondurants are a metaphor for American invincibility and should not be seen to die. But ‘Forrest survived a great many more things than are shown in the film and for him to die in this way [of pneumonia] is very special,’ says Hillcoat, adding ‘it is important for us to show that no-one is [invincible]’.

My cinema comrade and I had exactly this debate about the epilogue as the credits rolled. Personally, while the epilogue does seem a little tagged on and far too neat for such a somber drama it does have some nice touches and I believe Hillcoat’s argument holds true. The epilogue also goes some way to linking these brothers and the prohibition era to Matt Bondurant and modern times – a necessary link in the factual aspects of this story. I’d love to hear your views on this epilogue debate, so please feel free to leave a comment.

The Verdict

Lawless is an atmospheric, compelling character led prohibition drama that delivers on thrills and emotion. The action is both consistently believable and dark but the real strength of Lawless lies in its character led approach – in the lingering style with which the idiosyncrasies of its characters are portrayed. With outstanding performances from Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain, accompanied by a strong supporting cast, this is a must see drama of its type. The need for a more consistently persuasive villain and a less contrived closing sequence leaves it just short of five stars. Don’t miss it.

✭✭✭✭✩

For more information, see the official Lawless website

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