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Interview: John Hillcoat Talks The Top 5 Influences For His Prohibition-Era Gangster Movie 'Lawless'

by Drew Taylor
November 28, 2012 11:00 AM
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John Hillcoat, Lawless

This past summer, "Lawless," a gripping, based-on-a-true-story gangster movie from Australian director John Hillcoat, opened and closed without much fanfare, despite its uniformly excellent cast (included: Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Shia LeBeouf, Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska and Gary Oldman) and the fact that it was a really terrific movie. Thankfully, if you missed it in the theaters, you have a second chance as "Lawless" debuts on Blu-ray, DVD and iTunes this week. To mark the occasion, we got to speak to Hillcoat about the top five films that influenced his thrilling film.

Bonnie & Clyde Header

1) "Bonnie & Clyde" (Arthur Penn, 1967)
Unsurprisingly, Hillcoat's first choice is Arthur Penn's immortal "Bonnie and Clyde," a similarly dusty look at old timey outlaws. "I've always been very inspired by that film," Hillcoat confessed (and, now that we think of it, you can see bits of the film in his debut, the settlers-versus-aborigines epic "The Proposition"). "The way that it just got under the skin of those characters from that time and the way that it played with mythology and violence. I loved the way it was looking at those people at a time of major change in America." The film is nestled between two of Hillcoat's greatest cinematic pleasures. "My two favorite genres are the western and the gangster film, and it was great to see the gangster film in the country," Hillcoat said. "It was a very different sort of film focusing just on that one mythic couple. But the way that it deconstructed the myth but also added to the myth was also amazing and inspiring. And you just sort of felt like you were in those times and with those people."

We then asked him about what he assimilated from the film's use of violence (there are more than a few moments of shocking violence in "Lawless" that had us squirming). "The violence is very explosive and very harsh and brutal," Hillcoat explained. "[But] the violence, when it does erupt, is not gratuitous and is very truthful."

White Heat
2) "White Heat" (Raoul Walsh, 1949)
Next up on the hit parade is Raoul Walsh's gangster classic "White Heat," made for Warner Bros. near the end of the forties (in 2003 its importance was solidified when it was added to the National Film Registry). "To me it's the high point of the classic gangster genre," Hillcoat said. A lot of this has to do with the film's lead. "The great thing about [James] Cagney was that no matter how goony he was, he was always truthful."

"What's amazing about 'White Heat' is that, even for its time, it's very truthful in the way it deals with violence," Hillcoat explained. "It's shockingly visceral." What's also incredible is how the genre was still in its infancy when "White Heat" came along and made its mark. "You can see the birth of this genre and it's kind of defined by that movie in so many ways," Hillcoat said, noting that it provided direct inspiration for at least one character in the film. "That was a great inspiration for the character of Rakes [a villainous law enforcer played with lip-smacking gusto by Guy Pearce] and the kind of Chicagoan from those times," he added.

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  • Nosgoth1979 | January 10, 2013 3:26 PMReply

    I’m going to have to check out those documentaries. I’ve only recently become interested in that era of history, but it seems very fascinating. I haven’t seen Lawless yet, but one of my coworkers at DISH told me it was the kind of movie you only want to see once. So I won’t be blind-buying it. I used to buy most of my movies before I saw them, but that habit left me with a bunch of discs I’ll never use again. That’s a lot of money wasted. Once I started thinking like that I decided to change my habits, and now I use DISH’s Blockbuster @Home to rent all my movies before I buy them. I get thousands of titles streamed whenever I want to my TV and PC and over 100,000 titles by mail for a flat monthly fee, and it keeps me from buying movies that are just going to gather dust.

  • Dom Pink | November 28, 2012 6:53 PMReply

    THE PROPOSITION was not Hillcoat's debut.

  • JD V | November 28, 2012 1:26 PMReply

    "The genre was in it's infancy"...??? White Heat came out in 1949. It was considered a REVIVAL of gangster movies. Josef Von Sternberg's Underworld, probably the first real classic gangster movie, was released in 1924. Even if you don't accept Underworld as the beginning of the genre, Little Ceaser was a big hit in 1930.

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