NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
The film theorist Robert Warshow identified the Cowboy and the Gangster – two incarnations of the primal figure of the Man with a Gun – as the iconic heroes of the American Cinema. That was c. 1950, looking back on two decades of the talkies. Warshow, admirably intent on finding the worth in popular genres, didn’t even consider Flash Gordon, Batman or Superman – characters in tights in Satrurday matinee serials the studios made for kids but didn’t take seriously – as contenders, though their descendants or later iterations have all but swept the Western and the gangster movie out of the multiplexes. Screenwriter Nick Cave, who even cut an album of true crime songs once, and director John Hillcoat are plainly Warshow men and. Drawing on Matt Bondurant’s book about his family business (the IMDb lists it as a novel rather than history), they provide a kind of ultimate American Man With a Gun in the figure of the Prohibition-busting moonshiners who were at once gangsters and cowboys.
Set in 1931, Lawless is about the soft, clever Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf, finally cast well) who lives in the shadow of his older, tougher brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy – Gary Cooper with muscles) and Howard (Jason Clarke) and idolised sharper-dressed city mobster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). In Franklin County, Virginia, the Bondurants run a thriving distillery and get by thanks to the support of an entire community who can’t see the harm in boozing, even if the father of John’s sweetie (Mia Wasikowska) is a spade-bearded puritan who disapproves of them reckless boys. Trouble comes with the forces of law and order, represented in pantomime villain form by the bizarre Agent Rakes (Guy Pearce), a prissy maniac who wears gloves and a bowtie. The film is cynical after the manner of a 1970s Roger Corman gangster movie (this is a kissing cousin to Big Bad Mama, Moonshine County Express or Boxcar Bertha) in that the crooks’ opposition isn’t a straight-arrow Elliot Ness type but a hypocritical establishment that’s in favour of institutionalised corruption paid up the line to the DA rather than ad hoc bottles passed over to the Sheriff’s deputies. It’s a complex, wayward set-up and delays the expected face-off as Jack brings his smarts to the business, but also attracts enough attention to make life difficult. Forrest, who has a rep for immortality, gets his throat cut by thugs who rape his city girl waitress girlfriend (Jessica Chastain) and is sidelined for a while, only to stagger into the battle with Frankenstein stitches across his neck for the satisfying payoff.
Like the same team’s Australian Western The Proposition, this is a violent, muddy, noisy picture with a lot of cynical observations about the frontier. But it’s got a core of sweetness and family feeling – Hardy is somehow the most adorable bootlegger ever, in a frayed cardigan and given to a silly little dance move (which is what, in an ironic coda, gets him finally killed), and there’s a scene between him and Chastain as they address what happened to her while she was protecting him (the sexual assault is entirely offscreen, in a refreshing change) which is among the best-written and played screen moments of the year. With period music (not the obvious stuff) and decors and well-staged action, plus a Cavean streak of black humour (he’s not in it, but his virtual doppelganger Noah Taylor is), it’s more legend than history, but is the most accessible Hillcoat movie to date. Expect cardigan sales to soar, and Hardy to be the major movie star of the next decade.