Silver Screen: Lawless ****

Silver Screen: Lawless  ****
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Australian-born musician Nick Cave writes perfect songs for movie soundtracks. His fondness for murd
Bryan Miller

Australian-born musician Nick Cave writes perfect songs for movie soundtracks. His fondness for murder ballads and lyrics that spin warped folktales aside, the music itself is driven by deliberate, thudding percussion and draped in brooding minor chords. His song “Red Right Hand,” which was most famously put to jaunty-yet-ominous effect in Scream, has alone been featured in a half-dozen productions. It turns out the movies Cave writes are similarly elemental and atmospheric.

Lawless is Cave's third produced screenplay, and also his third collaboration with director and fellow Aussie John Hillcoat. It's their most commercial endeavor, which is no slight-- Lawless may be more conventionally plot-driven and less morally ambiguous, but it retains a measure of potency and grit.

Movies about Prohibition and the gangsters that flourished under it tend to focus on the glitzy city boys slinging the mash, but Lawless tracks the white lightning back to its source in the hill country of West Virginia. There an entire county thrives making backwoods whiskey, so many that at night the fires from the stills form constellations on the mountainsides.

Prominent among the moonshiners are the Bondurant brothers, whose toughness and stubbornness are the stuff of local legend. Eldest brother Forrest (Tom Hardy) is the ringleader and proprietor of their backwoods lounge. The towering Howard (Jason Clarke) is the brewmaster but also thoroughly addled by his own supply. The runt of the litter is Jack (Shia LeBeouf), the diminutive and impulsive tagalong relegated to menial tasks.

The brothers' business is disturbed when crooked Chicago cop Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) comes to town looking to take a cut of the action. He's equal parts effeminate fop and serpentine sadist. Rakes sports three-piece suits and dandy leather gloves, not to mention a bizarre haircut that makes his head look like a penis circumcised during an earthquake. (Presumably we have the Coen brothers to thank for psychopaths with dorky, outdated hairdos.)

The rest of the county's bootleggers bend to Rakes's will, all but the obstinate Bondurants. Thus begins a bloody battle of wills that threatens the lives not just of our boys but their amiable sidekick Cricket (Chronicle's Dane DeHaan) and the former Chicago dancer (Jessica Chastain) who fled the fast life of the city to take a job working at Chez Bondurant.

Though set in the early 1930s, Lawless is fashioned as a Western-- it bears far more resemblance to Tombstone than The Untouchables. It's an easy move given that the land the Bondurants work is undeveloped and their tradition is slow to keep pace with modernity. Hillcoat and Cave's last collaboration, The Proposition, was also a Western about three brothers, although that film had the bleak surrealism that suggested a punkish take on Cormac McCarthy. (In fact Hillcoat's project in between these two films was an adaptation of McCarthy's The Road.) In Lawless, however, Hillcoat slows down the pace and lingers on the countryside like a populist Terrence Malick. Though he isn't nearly as deft with Malick's elusive profundity nor as confident in his own ethereal tangents, Hillcoat crafts some beautiful images: burning stills stippling the landscape, vine-strewn trees bending toward the sun, snow falling in the glow of a redneck speakeasy. Perhaps the most direct reference point would be New Zealand director Andrew Dominik's seemingly and similarly Malick-inspired The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, although here again Hillcoat is more prone to pulp and plot twists. The end result is a movie that may be less artsy, but still artful.

Cave's script is littered with gore and bleak humor, and the cast plays it full tilt. Villain Pearce perhaps overplays it-- it's not quite a campy take à la Nicolas Cage, but it lacks the undercurrent of real menace that is the province of the best of the bad guys like Christoph Waltz, Michael Shannon, and Gary Oldman. (Oldman has a small role in Lawless, and it's nifty but very brief.) Hardy reprises his role as the thinking man's Vin Diesel, to great effect, and LeBeouf is smartly cast for both his brash unlikability and his ingratiating charm through sheer persistence.

The ladies, though talented, don't fare as well. Chastain's barmaid at least has some edge to her, whereas Mia Wasikowska as the preacher's daughter is just a naïve waif waiting to fall for LeBeouf. Either way, both are ultimately just damsels to be terrorized and rescued by the opposing sides-- for this, ultimately, is self-consciously a man's movie. The Proposition may have been a more obvious paen to Peckinpah, but his spirit lingers here, too, for better and for worse.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.