By Steve Greene | Criticwire May 19, 2012 at 4:10PM
Some of the recent entries in director John Hillcoat's filmography have been distinguishably bleak. 2005's "The Proposition" was a western set in the outback of Australia, complete with lingering shots of vast desert landscapes. "The Road" was based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. If you read the book or saw Hillcoat's adaptation, you're likely still recovering emotionally (we're here to help). With his newest film, "Lawless," Hillcoat tells a true story set in a more familiar world: Virginia during the era of Prohibition.
Based on the Matt Bondurant novel "The Wettest County in the World" and adapted by singer/songwriter/artist-of-all-trades Nick Cave, "Lawless" follows moonshiners trying to keep their drinking customers satisfied while navigating around the watchful, corrupt eye of the law. As with other notable bootlegging tales, the scope is wide, calling for attention to period detail and a large cast of characters to fill out the various subsets of the time period.
Many critics are viewing "Lawless" through the prism of other Prohibition films, presumably in anticipation of Hillcoat bringing a different approach to the subject matter. Eric Vespe of Ain't it Cool News argues that the central relationship surrounding the criminal/hero Bondurant brothers is the film's stand-out feature. "The film really is about family and how each of these brothers compliment each other as they try to make their way in the world. That’s what sets 'Lawless' apart from the myriad of other prohibition-era films," he writes. The Telgraph's Robbie Collin alternately asserts that "Hillcoat's film wins its gasps and gulps honestly, but it doesn't remotely strain against the constraints of genre in the same way as last two equally Western-inflected films, 'The Proposition' and 'The Road.'"
But while a discussion of Hillcoat's direction seems obligatory given his recent work, the stellar ensemble of "Lawless" seems to be drawing much of the critical examination. Most of the notable names have each earned kudos for their work. Film School Rejects' Simon Gallagher describes (Hillcoat vet) Guy Pearce's turn as the special agent working on the Bondurant detail as "the best performance by some distance, effusing super-human menace with a venomous undercurrent that belies his almost effeminate physical performance." "The most memorable" character moments, according to The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney, belong to "somber Forrest, whose dialogue is delivered from somewhere way back in [Tom] Hardy’s throat, often as barely more than an inarticulate rumble." Firstshowing.net's Alex Billington echoes the Tom Hardy sentiments, but notes that Shia LaBeouf "also stands out in 'Lawless' and delivers an impressive, fleshed-out performance as the younger Jack Bondurant brother." Dane DeHaan and Gary Oldman (in a smaller role) are earning positive notices as well.
Overall, the initial feedback has been mixed, with some like Indiewire's Eric Kohn writing that the film "makes the case for a moratorium" of the genre, while others like Gallagher arguing that Hillcoat "has almost crafted the perfect modern Western." But for those who take kindly to scenes of gunfighting and familial reckoning all set to a score co-written by Cave, this might be one to seek out when it hits theaters in late summer.
Instant Twitterverse Reaction:
"Lawless: seen it all before, but Cave and Hillcoat repackage this age old yarn with good photography, laidback vibe and ample headcracking."
"LAWLESS (Hillcoat) 5/10. Cliché-soaked, blood-spattered 1930s bootlegging drama glibly peddles ersatz, non-intoxicant moonshine."
"'Lawless'—solid mercenary genre picture. Hillcoat and Cave's characteristic moral intensity again gives the pulp a pulse. B"
"LAWLESS (Hillcoat) Basically a prohibition era Jason Statham movie, but one of his better ones. Boilerplate stuff, but hits the spot."
"Lawless (Hillcoat): 61. Flavorful turf-war pseudo-Western with two iconic badasses (and Pearce out-intimidating Hardy, incredibly)."
"More to say about LAWLESS, but to begin: it's two hours of Tom Hardy looking badass-hot in a cardigan, and the world needs more of that."