Lawless (18)

Directed by John Hillcoat
Written by Nick Cave (screenplay), Matt Bondurant (novel)
On general release from 14th September 2012

Reviewed by Joe Coventry

Al Capone said "When I sell liquor it's bootlegging. When my customers serve it on Lake Side Drive it's hospitality." As in Chicago, so with the Bondurant brothers' hillbilly moonshine operation in 1930s Franklin County, Virginia.

Lawless is based on a true story. Prohibition, enacted in 1919, still has a few years to run its course. Leisurely, long-range, panoramic shots of smoking fires, fuelling illicit stills, in the pine clad hinterland sets the scene.

Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBoeuf) are no more exceptional than the other outfits breaking the law. They openly produce and supply with a carefree approach to their trade, kowtowing to no-one. Why should they? Everyone is in on the game from makeshift speakeasys to clients collecting their hard stuff at roadside drops, cops included.

Things change when the county governor's office sends an Elliot Ness-style deputy marshal (Guy Pearce) to sort out the recalcitrant offenders. Most of the main players pay lip-service to officialdom but the Bondurants stand firm, threatening the uneasy status quo with maverick obstinacy. This will presage a Mexican stand-off at the end.

To get there this long and disjointed offering continues Hillcoat's infatuation with violence – masochistic, male-mutilation for the most part, but female abuse is not far away. However, nothing shocks as much as the opening scene. The killing of a squealing pig when the brothers are a lot younger and Jack's inability to carry out the task, is a scene that will reverberate in a more deadly confrontation later on.

Enter then, Maggie (Jessica Chastain) liberated and driving a Model T Ford away from a life of dancehall gold-digging, for a fresh start in the country. Morose and enigmatic Forrest is talked into taking her on to run the diner. In the time honoured way she achieves, with aplomb, the role of perpetual coffee-cup filler and burger queen, whilst wearing down the thinking man's defences.

This microcosm of small-town existence is set on the cusp of great change. Big cities are sprouting skyscrapers whilst the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl bring misery through homelessness and the end of the American Dream for many. For those who can stomach it there are Whites Only water fountains - indicative of racial polarisation, they show some laws are in inviolable. Life goes on.

The film alludes to all the above as Nick Cave's screenplay and music form the backdrop to the slow moving and stereotypical scenarios. The old ways are fading. Dirt farmers have become outlawed liquor barons. Who is growing all the tobacco and working the fields?

The Keystone Cops finale encapsulates the end of an era of common sense outcomes and justice – and also contempt for a bad cop who goes too far. Nostalgia for an all-American boy who becomes villain and hero at the same time is at the heart of this film, but the gratuitous violence and skin-deep characters leave the viewer detached and unsated.

In the final Walton-esque veranda scene Forrest is swigging from a more conventional bottle which will prove his eventual downfall. While you can't drink to that you may find that you will want a large one yourself.

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