Coarse, unrefined and packing a punch; moonshine is certainly the apt metonymic beverage for Lawless. Nick Cave’s third stab at screenwriting, and his third collaboration with director John Hillcoat, is a brash, bawdy joyride through Prohibition-era Virginia, that offers zero intellectual nutritional value but several caskfuls of mindlessly intoxicating goodness.
Based on Matt Bondurant’s novel, The Wettest County in the World, Lawless is the story of the Bondurant clan, a trio of brothers who, after several near-death experiences, local legend has as invincible, and whose bootlegging operation runs them into trouble following the arrival of Guy Pearce’s Charlie Rakes, a former mobster turned Prohi agent looking to cash in on the action.
Naturally the Bondurants’ alleged invincibility needs testing, and accordingly Lawless is a very, very violent film—the escalating turf-battle between Rakes and the brothers racking up a substantial injury-count. And yet for a film involving rape, castration, throat-slitting, and a general surfeit of gratuitous bloodletting, it’s weirdly wholesome—kind of like having a nice Sunday roast with Jeffrey Dahmer.
Maybe it’s because of the haze of nostalgia—the film fits snugly into the same contemporary Hollywood paradigm that’s spawned Boardwalk Empire and the forthcoming Gangster Squad—that seeks to mine out bygone eras and glorify their fashions and social mores, and which plays off the idea that early twentieth-century America was some kind of earthy, pastoral place where men were all-fucking, all-fighting, all-drinking alpha-beasts and women were either sultry, clothes-phobic ex-hooker Jessica Chastain or demure, virginal Mia Wasikowska (yawn). Which is of course all bullshit, but there’s nevertheless something undeniably gratifying about immersion in that blithely nostalgic vision for a couple of hours.
Or maybe the sense of wholesomeness comes from the fact that this is the kind of good-old-fashioned movie-making that it feels like we’ve missed for a while. With its narrative of a small community that must be saved from the spectre of encroaching urbanisation and its vices by a gang of outsiders refusing to be civilised, Lawless is more a classic Western than a gangster-film, albeit one that substitutes horses for Model T’s and six-shooters for Tommy guns, and one that’s very much in the vein of The Untouchables—with a healthy, De Palma-esque sense of self-awareness to match. Cave’s screenplay is nothing spectacular; there are few moments—switches of allegiance, a deal made with Gary Oldman’s (woefully underused) mob boss, and a faintly unsatisfying climactic gun battle—that feel pretty flimsy and half-cooked. But Cave and Hillcoat’s triumph is having no pretensions about what kind of movie Lawless is, and the fact is that the plot machinations are far less important or interesting than watching Pearce lamp the shit out of Shia LaBeouf with a shotgun butt, or Tom Hardy lumbering around like a Red State, cardigan-sporting Bane, uttering dialogue almost entirely consisting of grunts and occasionally beating someone senseless/cutting their balls off.
Either way, it’s a lot of fun. Lawless’s wholesome ultraviolence equals the movie this summer has lacked so far: a trashy but committed piece of true popcorn-cinema. More of that please.
LAWLESS is released Friday 7 September.