CANNES – It might sound the most backhanded of compliments to begin a film review with praise for its hairdressing, but here goes: John Hillcoat’s brisk, bloody and sharply appointed Prohibition thriller “Lawless” is the most immaculately barbered film in recent memory. From the pragmatically shaved planes of Tom Hardy’s short-back-and-sides to Shia LaBeouf’s dandily pomaded undercut to Guy Pearce’s unforgivingly skunky centre-right parting, no tonsorial decision in this robust period piece has been idly or accidentally made, every style revealing something of the wearer’s designs, demographic and disposition.
One of many well-tended details in a handsomely burnished production, this would be little more than an incidental virtue in most films, not least ones shooting straight for the multiplex crowd. In “Lawless,” however, it’s indicative of a second, subversive, perhaps even subliminal agenda, one that trumps its proficient, slightly over-simplified qualities as genre storytelling. I’m writing of its cool preoccupation with masculine presentation, how it can inform and sometimes disguise brackets of class and age — evident as much in the ratty shit-colored cardigans worn by Hardy’s stolidly rural moonshine merchant as in the newly acquired tailoring of LaBeouf as Hardy’s younger, more aspirational brother.
Acutely aware of how they look at themselves and how we look at them, the film is, by extension, a tangy exercise in movie-star gazing, the physical differences between its leading men reflecting opposed modes of maleness no less prevalent on today’s Hollywood star ladder than in the earthier climes of Depression-era Franklin County, Virginia, where “Lawless” spins its allegedly true tale. If that seems an esoteric way to approach an otherwise straightforward story of brothers defending their turf, their honor and their alcohol, that’s because the film’s sparse thriller structure, with its single villain, unconflicted heroes and straightforward series of shootouts, provides an awful lot of room for such subtextual speculation. The right to booze, after all, has been a stereotypical tenet of lad culture for eons; where better than a Prohibition drama, then, for a supposed lads’ film to get a little self-reflexive?
“There’s you, believing your own legend again,” Jessica Chastain’s escaped showgirl Maggie says to Hardy’s Forrest Bondurant, after he confesses assuming he made it to hospital unaided following a particularly grisly attack — a line that gently mocks masculine autonomy (it was, of course, Maggie who rescued him) but also supports the film’s own quasi-mythic construction of the real-life Bondurant Brothers as rebels with a cause, defenders of pleasure, last of the honest outlaws. Family head Forrest, in particular, is presented as a kind of real-man archetype, with the cannily cast Tom Hardy (himself currently celebrated as the brutish antidote to Bieber-era sexuality) wittily limiting himself to a repertoire of sage-savage grunts, his homely choice of knitwear accessorising his salt-of-the-earth presence.
Not for nothing is the instigator of trouble Forrest’s considerably more boyish, urban-influenced kid brother Jack (LaBeouf, his squirrelly physique never more aptly character-serving), whose initially successful attempts to bring the family’s quietly manufactured illegal moonshine to the big-city market catch the attention of less forgiving authorities: it’s not just his immaturity that endangers the family, but his discontent with his own rusticity. Not for nothing is the chief enemy of the piece Guy Pearce’s preening, excessively refined lawman Rakes (“It’s special deputy Rakes,” he snarls insecurely), whose own sexual identity is called into question by more than his dainty gentleman’s wardrobe: “Oh, you’re a peach,” he leers at a young male offender, smoothing creases in his white leather gloves all the while. (His ambiguities certainly don’t go undetected by the Bondurants, who retaliate against his bullying by sending him a grotesque gift that I won’t spoil here, though it does come delicately wrapped in pink tissue paper.)
If there’s something arguably regressive about this equation of heroism with rootsy, red-blooded manliness, the defense is that it comes parcelled in its own distanced reflection on American fraternal ideals — though even by that rationale, one still wishes its women, Chastain and the ever-engaging Mia Wasikowska as LaBeouf’s fallen-snow Amish girlfriend, had a little more to do. The boys certainly have all the fun here, playing variations on their established screen personae with varying degrees of intensity. LaBeouf, for his part, has never been more spry or appealing than he is as the smart-naif Jack, wearing the world like it’s his new suit, and his new suit like it’s the world. Pearce, meanwhile, is a riot, shading in Rakes’s campness without compromising his slithery, terrifying authority.
They’re all made to look a million dollars — in Hardy’s case, a very scuffed, mud-stained million dollars — with the aforementioned styling and Margot Wilson’s exactingly textured and silhouetted costumes, the centerpiece of a production that bears the influence of both old-school studio polish and the stone-colored restraint of Hillcoat’s previous features, the grain of Benoit Delhomme’s economically lit digital lensing just taking the edge off the nostalgia. Nick Cave’s score, storming era-hopping folk laced with the fluttery vocals of Emmylou Harris, is a thing of rather more range and intricacy than his serviceable script, which seems to be missing a few genre beats, as well as the flavorful vernacular of the Australian’s closer-to-home “The Proposition.” These absences aren’t felt as much as you might think in a sleek entertainment whose style — and whose sex — turn out to be its substance. As Jack discovers midway through the film, some vehicles can indeed run on moonshine.
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