The relationship between singer Nick Cave and filmmaker John Hillcoat has been a fruitful one over the years; while Hillcoat has done a lot of music-video work for Cave’s gothic-blues group The Bad Seeds, Cave has also worked on Hillcoat’s feature films, providing music for “The Road” (2009) as well as screenplays for “Ghosts of the Civil Dead” (1988) and “The Proposition” (2005).
Their latest collaboration is “Lawless,” which features a Cave treatment of Matt Bondurant’s 2008 novel “The Wettest County in the World,” which Bondurant loosely based on the exploits of his own grandfather, a hillbilly entrepreneur/gangster who ran moonshine in backwoods Virginia during the prohibition era. Cave even formed a new group, The Bootleggers, to record the film’s moody, Appalachian-inflected soundtrack. (Which also features bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley doing a cover of, believe it or not, The Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat.”)
At times lyrical, at others sadistic and unforgiving, “Lawless” is clearly Cave/Hillcoat territory, right down to the bible-thumping preacher and a gnarly tar-and-feathering. The story follows the Bondurant brothers, who are trying to move beyond their hardscrabble existence by selling home-brewed alcohol to the city speakeasies. Forrest and Howard (Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke) are both big menacing types who nobody wants to mess with, but youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is a wannabe criminal who can neither put up or shut up.
Jack winds up getting a vicious beating when corrupt Chicago lawman Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) muscles in on their territory, and Forrest is enraged; having survived the trenches of World War I, he cultivates a myth of indestructibility; reputation is the only insurance in a dog-eat-dog world. His only response to violence is more vicious violence, but when it drags in those close to the brothers — like Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a city dame fleeing a sordid past who has a flame for Forrest, or Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the preacher’s daughter who Jack is courting — they know there’s only one way to end it.
This is more of a straight-up style of entertainment from Hillcoat — whose previous film, “The Road,” was fantastic but unbelievably bleak — mixing elements from “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Untouchables” for a rather uncomplicated noble outlaws vs. nasty cops movie, with plenty of shootouts and minimal philosophizing from Cave in the dialogue. The performances are all on the mark, particularly Hardy, who puts his gravelly, Bane-voice to good use, and Pearce, who is demonically over-the-top with shaved eyebrows and cruelly parted hair.
Even LaBeouf can’t ruin the day; yes, he’s as bad as ever, but rather perversely, that makes him perfect for the role. Take the scene where Bertha calls him an outlaw and he replies, “I’m just doing what every man around here would do if he had the strength of character.” A better actor would see the braggadocio of a self-deluded young man in this, and intentionally add that shading to it. Shia, however, is that deluded young man, and he delivers it at face value, chest puffed-out, a gangsta wannabe believing his own hype. Now that’s Method acting.