Flick of the Day: Lawless

Australian director John Hillcoat burst onto the scene with his ultra violent yet soulful take on the Western, The Proposition from a script by fellow Aussie Nick Cave, The sombre tone of that film was perfectly suited to his next film, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's masterful apocalyptic novel The Road. That film had its moments but suffered from the sheer difficulty of recreating the unique prose of McCarthy. His latest work is another adaptation, this time of a true story, and another collaboration with Nick Cave. Lawless is a tale of bootlegging and in the backwoods of Virginia during the prohibition era and is today's flick of the day.
In the depths of the great depression, the effects of prohibition have yet to reach Franklin County, Virginia where the three Bondurant brothers make a quiet living selling their home distilled moonshine. Forrest, played by the man of the moment Tom Hardy, is tough and taciturn with an air of invincibility and the natural leader of the three. Howard, played by Australian Jason Clarke, is a feckless rogue but possessed of an immense strength and propensity for violence. Finally there is the runt of the litter, Jack, played by everybody's favourite  punching bag Shia LaBeouf is ambitious and has a penchant for the gangster lifestyle. Into this Hank Williams song steps the law in the form of pantomime villain Charlie Rakes. I say pantomime because Guy Pearce has somewhat inexplicably chose to portray Charlie with all the depth and realism of the wicked witch of the west. Alas, more of that anon, back to the tale. Rakes is determined to stamp out the illegal liquor business unless they are willing to grease the wheels of justice. Suffice as to say, Forrest is not willing to back down and sets the family on a collision course with the vicious Rakes.
It would be wrong to criticise Hillcoat too much for Lawless flaws, for there is much to enjoy here. Not least of which is Tom Hardy's solid and impressive performance as the clan leader determined not to back down in the face of the terrorist tactics of Charlie Rakes. LaBeouf gets a lot of criticism as an actor, much of it deserved however here he is perfectly matched with the role of Jack, a brash young man who dreams of the big time. The great Gary Oldman is criminally underused as an urban gangster who buys the brother's booze, and that's it really, that is all he does in the movie. Oh wait, he fires a Thompson gun once and swings a shovel. Jessica Chastain is better served as the mysterious woman with a past who comes into the Bondurant's lives. I've enjoyed her work since last year's Take Shelter and she is strong again in an underwritten role.
Now inevitably we must come to Guy Pearce and his "acting". I don't quite know why he chose to play the brutish Charlie Rakes with all the subtlety of a kick to the scrotum but there you go. He hams it up throughout, flouncing across the screen with a voice that sounds not dissimilar to one of the lepers in Ben Hur while committing acts of savagery and having an obsession with cleanliness. He is the worst thing about the film but necessary to drive the plot forward.
That said, this is by no means a bad film. It is entertaining throughout and the Virginia setting has an authenticity sadly lacking in Michael Mann's dull Public Enemies which deals with the same period. The tale of the Bondurant clan is of course a true story something which in and off itself makes the film more interesting. Hillcoat knows how to frame a shot and the scenery of the Virginia backwoods is eerily beautiful.  This accompanied by the well choreographed bouts of violence creates a film that is nothing if not stylish and feels of the period. A worthy endeavour.