The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by Jim Holden.

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Nick Cave - as a singer, songwriter, composer and Bad Seed - is renowned for dark, haunting, lyrical poetry in song form. Loud rock epics mingle with beautiful ballads - sometimes subtle, sometimes frank; above all, Cave conjures up stark, vivid images in his music - a fact that makes his expansion into the world of filmmaking less surprising than it otherwise might be.

Lawless is Cave’s third produced screenplay. His previous two, Ghosts of the Civil Dead (1988) and The Proposition (2005), were both also directed by John Hillcoat. The Proposition is the comparison piece here, having similar themes to Lawless: law and order, the blurred lines between into which his characters fall, as well as families, brothers, wide open landscapes and periods of change. The the earlier film was set in the outback, both also have elements of the Western, and are equally violent, gritty, yet sparse affairs. People are convincingly evil and good people die. But the films also have moments of beauty and reflection, and are made to look stunning.

The soundtracks, also by Cave with collaborator Warren Ellis, help here, and add to the engulfing moods - all subtle whispers of songs. Indeed, in Hillcoat’s films Cave’s music tends to be dominant, and recognisable; yet his scored songs are usually wordless, and possess an almost minimalist sound. The Proposition’s soundtrack works significantly better than does The Road’s, which jars with and occasionally distracts from the subject matter. Lawless’, meanwhile, is slightly different, featuring alternative versions of a few choice Americana tracks, as well as, perhaps surprisingly, a cover of a Velvet Underground song.

Such an anachronistic music choice might lead us to expect a somewhat playful film, and yet - apart from occasional nods like this - Lawless is in many ways more traditional and conventional than The Proposition; this maybe due in part to the book upon which it is based - The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant. I have to say here, however, that I have not read the source novel, and so this Alternate Take cannot be a critique of Cave’s choices in adaptation, but rather simply a discussion of what he and Hillcoat have ended up presenting on screen.

At first glance, this material seems to meld perfectly with what we know of the songwriter’s sensibility. The lush open spaces, crooked deals, and harsh realities of prohibition America meet in Cave’s established preference for cold, haunting lyricism, as well as his eye for the cynical macabre. Something, though, seems to hold this film back from an edge; could it be that the melding is in fact too comfortable?

The script of Lawless is fairly traditional. Narrated by LaBeouf’s Jack Bonderant, the plot primarily focuses on his rather familiar narrative arc of losing his innocence and learning to become a man. Meanwhile, his brother, Hardy’s Forest, is provided with less privileged focus and yet manages to virtually monopolise our interest. Attempting to balance its attention between these two brothers (with Jason Clarke’s Howard reduced to an entertaining but supporting role) increasingly becomes a problem for the film, since Hardy is so much more magnetic a character and presence. Screen time may be relatively evenly split between the pair, yet because the narrative is essentially told from Jack’s point of view, the fact that Hardy gets all the engaging action and characterisation is problematic for Lawless’ sense of coherence; this issue comes to head during the final shoot-out, in which Forest is resolutely centre-stage.

How much of this is down to the actors is a key question. LaBoeuf is likable when projecting a youthful innocence at the film’s opening, yet this seems to be his limit. The visible strains in his performance ensure we are never likely to believe in his impulse towards rash antics, nor care for their consequences. Both LaBoeuf as an actor and his character of Jack appear to be trying too hard, on every level. We might simply find ourselves rolling our eyes when Jack goes to church to impress a girl and loses his shoe; compare this to the seduction scene featuring Hardy and Jessica Chastain - the former sequence featuring our narrator feels throwaway and silly, while the other is powerful, subtle and tense. John Hillcoat has mentioned how eager LeBeouf was during filmmaking, and perhaps that is the issue. Hardy has a natural screen presence, LeBeouf does not. This is out of the screenwriters hands, but the performances unbalance the screenplay’s structuring principles, and thus threaten the film’s developing mood and atmosphere.

However, Cave’s script is not just about the two brothers, but is also concerned with the America of the period. The Prohibition era is a familiar subject on screen (a very different, unrbanised side of it is currently being shown in Boardwalk Empire) and although Cave keeps the film very localised, one might feel that the film has to cover the bigger social picture and what it drove people to do. In practice, though, the screenplay almost side-steps this responsibility, instead focusing on the here and now of the Bonderants livelihood. But this works, at times, beautifully. The closeness and intimacy of the tale is perfect for the isolated world Cave wants to create - from the Bonderant’s house to the haunting image of the hidden distillery lost in the woods. The screenwriter has admitted that he does not feel an intense interest for the historical particularities of this American era, and this shows (in the characterisation of the church, for instance), but by no means always to damaging effect.

Perhaps the most jarring element of the narrative is the ending. After the final, gritty shoot-out, one can’t help but feel how the film should end - that is, ambiguously. It doesn’t; Forest survives, and we see a future for the three brothers surrounded by wives and children. And though there is some dark humour to Forest’s ending, it is ultimately a bookend the film simply does not need. The film has established a sense of doom for these outlaws’ trajectory; we do not need to know they lived happily ever after. For all the beauty and darkness in Lawless, the screenplay and movie finally gives up. As a fan of Nick Cave, and someone largely impressed by the film as a whole, the eventual sweetness can’t help but leave a somewhat bitter aftertaste.

This Alternate Take was published on October 13, 2012.