Unbeknownst to many, even those who are somewhat familiar with the music legend, Nick Cave is a screenwriter as well as a musician. Cave has written exclusively for Australian-born Canadian director John Hillcoat, and while both are undeniably talented individuals in their respective roles, their latest collaboration, 2012’s Lawless, feels like an uncharacteristic compromise for both.
Nick Cave is a wordsmith, that much is indisputable. Yet Lawless, a ‘based on a true story’ prohibition period piece, features some of the cheesiest words the man has ever put to paper, with lines like “The city can grind a girl down” and “He’s already regretting it, he’s just too ignorant to know it yet.” Cave is a bona fide poet, but the dialogue’s clichés can override the Southern colloquialism as much as it can disrupt the immersive flow of the film’s narrative.
Though, it is certainly a compellingly told story about three Virginian bootlegging brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) who distribute moonshine during the prohibition era but find their operation in jeopardy as they clash with the newly installed, and highly corrupt, Special Deputy Rakes (Guy Pearce).
It is only a shame the premise is occasionally dragged down by typical structuring and predictable developments. The film enslaves itself to cinematic structure in a way that smothers Lawless to the point of lacking any sort of nuance within the gangster genre, going by the numbers until there is that inevitable showdown with the law.
Furthermore, neither Cave’s screenplay nor Hillcoat’s direction manages to reconcile the drama with the film’s violence. These are characters who are supposed to be likeable, which they are, until their true natures are revealed, but instead of making them compellingly conflicted and inherently flawed people, like in Goodfellas, they insist we go back to viewing them as relatively unblemished heroes (in spite of their actions), pitted against an easily identifiable singular foe.
The foe that is Special Deputy Rakes, who is at least well played by Pearce, can nonetheless be hard to take seriously given his one or two-note characterisation, and a get-up that makes him look more like a Bond villain caught in the wrong picture. This is only exacerbated by the walking cliché that is Gary Oldman’s pin-stripe-wearing, Tommy Gun-wielding Floyd Banner. Homage is admirable, but such overt platitudes devolve most tributes to a bygone era.
While they are not wholly unique characters, such as you would find in many a Tarantino film, the three leads thankfully deliver excellent performances, whose characters possess enough individuality to make me care about each of their well-beings. Although, Clarke’s Howard certainly plays second fiddle to the more fleshed-out Forrest and Jack.
Aside from the performances, what elevates Lawless most, even at its most ridiculous, is John Hillcoat’s stylish direction. So much so there are times where you can even forgive the clumsy balance of action and drama. Hillcoat takes the material and runs with it, never for one moment hinting at a lapse of faith in the script provided by Cave, whose writing is unquestionably flawed, but luckily found the right director to realise it in a mostly entertaining manner.
Lawless is acceptable film fare, but fails to reach the heights of which both its writer and director are capable.