Since production first began on John Hillcoat’s prohibition film Lawless, I’ve been patiently waiting its release. Not only am I a fan of Hillcoat’s previous work, but the fact the film is written by musician Nick Cave made this a must-see. As the incredibly strong cast built up, my expectations just climbed. And then, just as I was expecting a truly great film, the reviews began to come in. Everything about the film was criticized, from the performances to the screenplay. One of my most highly anticipated films of the year, became something I was dreading to see.
Now, it may just be my lowered expectations, but what I saw was not the total mess I expected. It was, instead, a slightly meandering, but ultimately great tale about myths and the violence that sometimes perpetuates them.
The film is based on the book The Wettest County in the World, written by one of the subject’s grandsons, Matt Bondurant. And as such, the idea of a family legend is not lost in this film, as it very much feels like one. Set during prohibition in Virginia, the film follows the Bondurant brothers, as they fight against the corrupt authorities to continue bootlegging.
Filled with themes of violence, revenge and greed, it is not hard to see why Nick Cave decided to adapt this material for the big screen. Sharing many elements from his lyrics, the film’s occasional dark humour fits in line with Cave’s writing perfectly.
However, as many critics pointed out, the film feels slightly directionless. You wait for a payoff, but cannot see it coming. In a lesser film, that would be a significant problem. Hillcoat’s visual sense, Cave’s music and the fantastic performances save you from losing interest.
Picking standout performances would be a bit of a disservice, as just about everyone is impressive. That being said, to not discuss the performances would be an even greater injustice. Jessica Chastain is once again great, proving that she may just become one of this generation’s best actresses. Shia Labeouf shows that he can shine with more difficult, mature material. It is Guy Pearce, however, who gets to enjoy the film’s most showy performance as a despicably corrupt Special Agent sent to shut down the ever-growing bootlegging operation.
From one standpoint, I can see why many have been critical of Lawless. The film is hurt by the fact it is based on a true story, as staying faithful sometimes comes at a dramatic price. That being said, the truth of the story lends to the idea of the film being a family legend.
John Hillcoat’s Lawless is certainly a film worth seeing, but maybe going in with lowered expectations would help a bit.