Although they are separated by months in the US two movies with very similar stories saw release in Australian theaters this weekend: Lawless and Killing Them Softly ( see Here for my review of the later). Both are slightly skewed iterations of that inherently American genre the gangster film that were scripted and shot by Australians that are inexorably linked in my mind due to the synchronicity of their careers and their shared love of Australis’ original Terra Mr.Nick Cave: Andrew Dominik and John Hillcoat, my two favorite local directors. You could say that the stakes are high, that this week should be an event but my reactions have rarely been so staid.
This film is the work of the latter, his third feature just as Softly is Dominik’s and like that movie it is a disappointment when compared to his last; that though is where the similarities end. Softly is a very strange and purposefully unsatisfying film, one where the violence is overly veritable and the story scattershot, whereas Lawless serves up its shoot-outs like a blockbuster would ( by having the bad guys miss with ninety-nine out of every hundred bullets) and tells a story that is deceptively straight.
The strange thing about this though is that all the advance word That I’ve heard about this film has been about how weird it is: how lyrical its style, how jarring it’s violence and how coarse the combining of the two. I also read an interview with the film’s writer Nick Cave that talked about how deviant and devilish they made Guy Pearce’s villain, how Tom Hardy tried to play his role like a matriarch ( specifically like Grandma from Sylvester and Tweety cartoons) and heard first hand just how literally lyrical and anachronistic the score Cave and Warren Ellis constructed was.
These elements are certainly all there, no one lied during the promotional period: Pearce showed his eyebrows, slicked back his hair with a centre part and is shown as snakelike, as Satanesque (flies subtly buzz around him as if attracted by the smell of sulphur) as he sadistically slaughters smugglers but none of this really skews the story any; Hardy too gives an interesting turn, dressing in argyle sweaters and tutting like a dour countess, as proper as he is primal but these traits are periphery, never driving the pre-predicted plot of the picture and the score? Hillcoat smartly kept in only the fitting sections of tracks, muting the vocals on all others.
There are some compelling elements to this film – those mentioned already, Oldman’s Floyd and some stunning cinematography ( a skill shared with Dominik) – but Hillcoat doesn’t commit to any of them. Similarly there is something being said here about the contemporary war on drugs – that violent prosecution begets violent retaliation, that laws like prohibition are parent to the illegal activities that follow and that these dealings are potent economies ( a thought shared by Softly) – but it comes across as a whisper and not a warcry; it seems secondary, but then so does everything that occurs.
That said this is still a satisfying film: the rags to riches, boy to man to murderer journey that youngest brother Jack takes is a cliche but a still working one; the violence is visceral and involving and occasionally there is a scene that strikes you – bathing in the church-house, the blacked-out bridge, the beautiful black twists of fate in the finale – but these are few and far between. For each of these there is two or three that leave you distant, looking about the cinema, with their lack of tension.
There is a loose thread through the film about legends – one that will be familiar to those who have seen Hardy in a certain comic-book adaptation or heard Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney discuss US foreign policy – and how important it is for a man to maintain the image of immortality and the idea of limitlessness – of lawlessness, one might say – but this is not a point of view that the film itself upholds; instead it shows its weakness, it cops out to cliche and commercial viability and is compromised as a result. In the Wettest county Lawless wouldn’t be a Bondurant brother, nor a Special Deputy, it would be the sheriff stuck in between; a man with a badge and gun but not the grit required to pull the trigger.