Lawless(John Hillcoat, 2012): Director John Hillcoat and writer/musician Nick Cave made a brutal, sporadically brilliant splash with The Proposition, a revisionist Outback Western that quickly tore away any lingering notions of frontier romanticism. Lawless, the duo’s take on another turbulent period of history — namely, the bloodiest years of American Prohibition — eases up on the unrelenting grimness a bit, but the hard edges still shine through.
Adapted from the historical novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, Cave’s script follows three Virginia brothers determined to continue their family’s legacy of providing quality moonshine to their faithful customers (including members of the local law enforcement) during the Great Depression. While the youngest brother (Shia LaBeouf) attempts to gain the business of a feared local mobster (Gary Oldman), the three find themselves under assault from a ruthless federal agent (Guy Pierce) with a sadistic agenda of his own.
Hillcoat, working with cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, delivers a fantastically realized period piece, one where the folksy, lived-in atmosphere is randomly dispelled by moments of shockingly raw savagery. Unfortunately, the attention to detail doesn’t quite extend itself to LaBeouf’s character, whose motivations and actions feel strangely half-baked throughout. Still, even if the main storyline occasionally falters, the film offers plenty to recommend itself, including Cave’s ominously cheery score, small but vivid turns by Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, and the gloriously weird Pierce, who starts his performance somewhere in the outer stratosphere and just keeps heading upwards. The main draw, however, ultimately comes from Tom Hardy, who goes all out and then some as the enforcer and reluctant father figure of the family. Clad in incongruously mellow cardigans and mumbling like a cartoon sailor man, he’s a Terminator for the ages. When it comes to his performance, White Lightning hardly covers it. (originally published on Amazon.com)
The Proposition(John Hillcoat, 2005): The Western has gone through so many revisionist phases over the years that it’s difficult to remember when a man could be happy on a horse, or a six-gun just stood for a six-gun. The Proposition, the highly touted screenwriting debut for legendary Aussie goth rocker Nick Cave, certainly has a lot to say, and some exceptional actors to do the saying, but for all of its mythic, even Biblical, aspirations, it keeps getting bogged down in the underneath.
Beginning with an alarmingly visceral bordello massacre, Cave the writer wastes no time in getting down to narrative business. After notorious Irish desperado Charlie (Guy Pearce) gets nabbed in said shootout, the local sheriff (a superb Ray Winstone) offers a choice: watch his younger sibling (newcomer Richard Wilson, overdoing the waifishness a bit) swing from the noose, or agree to hunt down and kill his older brother (Danny Huston), a much-feared butcher rumored by the local aboriginals to have shape-shifting powers. Along the way, Charlie meets up with a drunken mad-dog bounty hunter (John Hurt) and his torturous moral path just gets muddier and bloodier.
As his discography proves (particularly the great bad aural trip Murder Ballads), Cave has no small gift for capturing the uneasy allure of violence, a notion which transfers stunningly onto the screen. Swift, brutal, and not exactly shy of the closeup, the copious savagery here genuinely hurts. Unfortunately, the moments between bloodlettings are less successful, with an overall reaching for sagebrush poetics that too often falls flat. The strength of the central performance, however, makes it possible to forgive a lot. Pearce brings a disturbing physicality to his character’s inner soulsick turmoil, to the point where he literally seems to be turning into a ghost on camera. Under the gaze of his reluctantly vengeful death’s head, the rampant pretensions and ceaselessly wailing tumbleweeds almost cease to chafe. Almost. (originally published in The Stranger)