16 August, 2012

Review: "Lawless" (****)

Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain star in "Lawless"

Step one: Get director John Hillcoat and writer/musician Nick Cave back together. Step two: Assemble names like Chastain, Hardy, LaBeouf, Oldman, Pearce and Wasikowska. Step three: Convince Emmylou Harris to work with Cave and Warren Ellis on some new music. Step four: Film in Georgia. This is a perfect recipe to gain my interest.

With my curiosity at an all time high, "Lawless" premiered at Cannes. While it didn't knock any socks off, it didn't receive many bad marks either. When the trailer hit a few weeks later, my expectations were put in check. I remained enthusiastic, but some wind was let out of my sails upon seeing what appeared to be more of a commercial play than an exercise in artistry. Now, having seen the film, I confess to being very pleased with the final product.

"Lawless" is based on "The Wettest County in the World" by Matt Bondurant, the real-life grandson of Jack Bondurant (played by LaBeouf). Although it possesses somewhat of an awkward lilt, retaining the original title would've lent the film more of an edge. A bit more generic, "Lawless" only actually became the title after Terrence Malick released the naming rights to the producers. Nonetheless, the film possesses enough story and star-power to make an impression in cinemas.

The film marks a truly international effort. Hillcoat and Cave assembled a cast of fellow Aussies (Clarke, Pearce, Wasikowska), Americans (Chastain, DeHaan, LaBeouf) and Brits (Hardy, Oldman). In addition, they chose a French director of photography, BenoĆ®t Delhomme. Filmed mostly south of Atlanta, the wintered kudzu vines so prominently on display sum up the rustic beauty of the film. There is plenty to look at, but the less-than-imaginative cinematography glosses over much of the grit that would've provided the film with just as much character as the cast does.

Shia LaBeouf and Mia Wasikowska star in "Lawless"

The cast ranges from adequate to excellent, with the 'adequates' still doing the best with what's given them. Best in show is Tom Hardy, no doubt. While his award chances will fall by the wayside as the season progresses, Hardy creates the most distinctive character in the film. His strategically placed grunts assure us that his voice is becoming as much of a draw for casting agents as his all-around badassery. As much as I wanted Hardy to be the sole lead, the title belongs mostly to LaBeouf. Worried that he would show poorly up against his more revered costars, I'm glad to say he gives us nothing to grieve. Chastain provides us with more evidence that she is a perfect human specimen. Mia 'Mini Cate Blanchett' Wasikowski isn't forced to do much heavy lifting, but is a joy to watch in each of her frames. Guy Pearce makes the most of a flashy, almost over-the-top role as the film's main antagonist, while we hardly get to see the criminally underused Gary Oldman in more than two scenes.

Proven duo Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are back at it again, this time collaborating with The Bootleggers, Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris for the film's music. No voice could possibly fit the feel and look of the film better than Harris' tin-roof tone. While it is lovely hearing her voice each time, a few moments in the film would have benefited more from instrumental pieces. Regardless of song placement, this is a soundtrack I'll be buying.

Good direction and a sprawling all-star cast make "Lawless" a nice addition to Georgia's film cannon.

4 out of 5 stars.

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