Not too long ago, it seemed like the little-visited genre of the gangster/western had eventually had its time. Despite the star power of Johnny Depp, the well-publicised Public Enemies did not fare well at the box office, and the genre once defined by the likes of The Untouchables seemed destined to play the part of a ghost town once again.
It would appear that this is not what John Hillcoat wants. Having already directed The Proposition and the short Red Dead Redemption: The Man From Blackwater, Hillcoat still has a need to scratch his Old West itch. And praise the Lord that he did!
As many will atest to, the phrase "Based On A True Story" (when it comes to the cinema at least) can lean inevitably towards a huge helping of a cheese-fest with a dollop of "I don't believe it!" on the side. Fear not, for there will be no cause of indigestion by cheese here on Hillcoat's latest - your more likely to try and hold your meal down due to the violence that rears its head throughout its running time rather than corny-itis and eye-rolling.
To help you better understand where Lawless sits, try and picture a Hillbilly version of Goodfellas and you're pretty much there. The Ray Liotta role of "wannabe respected and feared manboy" is taken by the fresh-faced LaBeouf who, like his Italian American cinematic cousin, narrates his way through the proceedings for us. It is he that introduces his two older brothers - the two that he so desperately wants to impress and eclipse. Clarke - the eldest brother - takes the Pesci role of the unhinged individual who you can count on, but only when it suits him and his moonshine intake. His violence is mentioned throughout the film but the acts of silent and deadly aggression that spill blood out onto the screen that is the most disturbing all belong to Hardy's middle brother, Forrest. The brains of the brothers, Hardy mixes the menace of his Bane (The Dark Knight Rises) with the confidence of his Eames (Inception.) LaBeouf may be telling the story but Hardy steals it. Completely. Despite wearing a natty grey cardigan, attached to a whisper of a voice and a grunt that equates to half of his dialogue, Hardy portrays a coiled tension which, with the aid of a knuckle duster hidden in his cardigan, breaches the still waters of conversation like a Great White. When he erupts, best step back and watch from a distance.
Of course it's not all about the violence. Cave's script is able to make the occasional nod to matters both relevant back then and now - racism, greed and corruption. These are supplied by the support cast of Oldman - a small part despite his billing but a significant one as it is he that sets LaBeouf off on the path to wanting to be a "Wild West Goodfella" - and Pearce, the dark heart of the film. Picture the albino that kills Connery's Irish cop in The Untouchables and the Secret Service Agent from The Frighteners and you've nailed Pearce's creepy, gloved, no-touching Special Agent from the Big City. Yes, he may be a walking cliche so as to help you side with the boys who are technically on the wrong side of the law, but he does it so well that it can be overlooked or at least forgiven. You will want his comeuppance before the end credits roll and you'll want it as painful as possible for him!
Overall, fans of Goodfellas may think it just alittle too close for their liking - LaBeouf even falls for and tries to impress the girl who knows she shouldn't be with the boy from the wrong side of town but can't help loving him, especially as he flashes the cash and shows her the sights - but its music and actors pull it away enough to have it as a side thought in your head rather than a stick stuck in your throat. The female cast do struggle somewhat to shine as bright as their male counterparts - Wasikowska plays the preachers daughter that falls for the youngest sibling and for the most part just has to look alluring-yet-innocent enough to keep him and the audience interested. It is Chastain that has the meatier of the two female roles but even then she seems destined to be the love interest for Hardy's tongue-tied man who can't act even when it's handed to him "on a plate."
Entertaining and engaging, Lawless is able to keep you right up to its end narration, with a smile-inducing moment involving the legend of the invincible Bondurant Brothers which just goes to show that some "true life stories" are stranger than fiction but nothing is invincible in the end....
UK release date: 07.09.12