Lawless is the film that lets you know -- with a big, loud, Oscar-hungry bang -- that summer is over at the movies and it's time to put away all such childish cinematic things.
Based on a novel by Dallas-based Matt Bondurant about his family's real-life bootlegging past, it's a violent, brooding portrait of brotherhood in trying times. It's also a return to form for Australian director John Hillcoat, acclaimed for his 2005 Western The Proposition and then derided for his take on the celebrated novel The Road four years later.
Interestingly, Lawless stars two actors many know best from their action-heavy blockbusters: Tom Hardy (Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, Eames in Inception) and Shia LaBeouf (Sam Witwicky in the "Transformers" movies). Here, they are two very different brothers living in the poverty of the hollers and hills of southwestern Virginia during Prohibition. Hardy's Forrest Bondurant is as big, tough and communicative as an iron slab, while LaBeouf's Jack is thin, talkative and nervous as a jackrabbit. In between is a third brother, the wild-eyed Howard (Jason Clarke, Brotherhood) whom Forrest can count on for backup.
They are all bonded by blood and booze. Their hooch, which the sheriff (Bill Camp) lets them distribute with a wink and a nod, just may be the best in Franklin County. But corrupt state investigators -- fronted by the effete and cruel Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) -- want a slice of the action, too, as do some other local gangsters, led by the cocky Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman).
But Forrest, whom area legend says is indestructible, won't kowtow to outsiders. And the hills of Franklin County come alive with the sound of gunfire.
The screenplay was written by longtime Hillcoat collaborator Nick Cave, who has come a long way from his days as the frontman for Australian post-punk bands the Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds. Yet what links much of Cave's work -- whether it's a novel like And the A-- Saw the Angel or a remake of the classic song Stagger Lee -- is a fascination with the American South.
With Lawless, he gets to indulge all of his Southern passions, creating an insular, forgotten world that Hillcoat and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme bring to life with a haunting, gray veracity. Cave is also responsible for the music (along with Warren Ellis) and it's a beautiful pastiche of past and present.
Having bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley cover the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat was a stroke of cross-generational genius. Not since O Brother, Where Art Thou? a dozen years ago has a film been such a compelling showcase for rural American rhythms. (Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson also appear on the soundtrack.)
For all of that, though, there's a certain arty distance in Hillcoat's style. Pearce is just a bit too much of an exaggerated fop, while Maggie (Jessica Chastain), the woman who manages to crack Forrest's stony exterior, is understated to the point of enigma. Mia Wasikowska as Jack's girlfriend, Bertha, has a more naturalistic presence.
It's LaBeouf though, even if he still looks as if he's 16, who gets to show that he's not just some "Transformers" plaything anymore. Much like the movie season itself, he's now refashioning himself for grown-ups.
Cary Darling, 817-390-7571