This year’s Cannes Film Festival is abundant in American productions — six of them in the whole program. Today, an epic American gangster tale — Lawless, directed by John Hillcoat (The Road, The Proposition) — was screened for the first time, and it sure wasn’t a disappointment.
Written and scored by Nick Cave, the film is based on The Wettest County in the World, a novel by Matt Bondurant, who is the grandson of one of the main characters. It takes us back to Prohibition-era Virginia, where the three Bondurant brothers — Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) — make a run for the American Dream by producing and selling a popular brand of moonshine. However, the business is threatened by the arrival of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) from Chicago.
The new “law” Rakes brings is lethal and corrupt, and challenges everything the brothers have built and represent. But they refuse to bow down and they fight for what is theirs. The story is spiced with two romances: the exotic, steadfast Maggie (Jessica Chastain, who returns to Cannes after last year’s success in The Tree of Life) catches the eye of clumsy yet firm ain’t-got-much-to-say Forrest, who is as shy with the ladies as he is resolute in eliminating enemies; the youngest sibling, sensitive wannabe-tough-boy Jack does everything to attract the attention of the quiet, pious Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of a priest.
John Hillcoat claims he was attracted to the script because it had two elements that really titillate him: sentimental love and brute violence. In Lawless, these are well-balanced rough-edged shoot-outs that leave a big mess all around and keep our blood boiling, while the uneasiness with which tough men try to express gentle emotions to the women they are secretly in love with strikes a romantic string. The soundtrack has a modern twist, and lifts the whole picture to new emotional heights; “music and script always go hand-in-hand for me”, shares Nick. The performances are all impeccable — the script leaves plenty of space for each actor to flourish, and their personalities beautifully gel the picture together.
As John emphasises, “we all have to protect characters these days.” Dialogues are well-paced, they do not feel artificial or performative the slightest, and the cinematography has a contemporary air about it despite the story being set in 1920s. The film is a proof that it’s still possible to make a fresh contribution to the widely explored gangster genre, while building it on the same old-fashioned moral values and classical gender-role stereotypes. So don’t be fooled by the hipster haircuts — Bondurant brothers are real gentlemen inside!
Lawless delivers everything that it promises and is a pleasure from beginning to end. Bearing an imprint of Sergio Leone, whom Nick Cave lists as his biggest influence for this work, it is also similar to historical tales of John Sayles, or the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, so you will find Lawless extremely enjoyable if you liked those. For gangster film and American historical drama lovers, Lawless will definitely be in the top-ten for the year to come.
Click here to watch an interview with the director, John Hillcoat.