This was very disappointing. Perhaps my expectations were too high, although it’s very difficult to ignore this project’s potential. I was fortunate to get my hands on the script about a year and a half ago (when the film, at the time called The Wettest County in the World, was still struggling to find financing) and was really taken aback by Nick Cave’s writing. The story, and his telling of it, was incredibly brutal, thrilling, and romantic. I could see the whole film in my head and couldn’t wait to see it on the screen. I knew Hillcoat would bring the emotional intensity and epic scope of The Road and The Proposition, and that Cave would compose another one of his hauntingly beautiful scores. But that didn’t happen, and this is not that film.
What this writer/director pair did instead was bring us a mostly conventional gangster film accompanied by your typical, period-appropriate music. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to like here: The performances are pretty much amazing all around (although Shia Labeouf is a little lackluster), the violence is exceptionally brutal, and there is a surprising amount of humor. There are some good moments here, but overall, there is a problem in tone. The Wettest County in the World reads as a lyrical and layered fable, while Lawless tries a little too hard to be a wild and rollicking good time.
It’s difficult for me to appreciate this film for what it is when I know what it could have been. Take for example the scene in which Forrest (Tom Hardy) gets his throat cut by the fellas from Chicago. This was by far the most amazing sequence in the script and should have been the centerpiece of the film. Instead, it was rushed to the point that it almost felt glossed-over. In the script, after his throat is cut, Forrest proceeds to trudge along the road, through heavy snow trying to get himself to the hospital (which is something like 9 miles away). He passes out somewhere along the way, then wakes up in the hospital all stitched up. So once we hear some of the supporting characters talking about how Forrest walked himself all the way to the hospital while holding his throat closed, we actually believe that he probably did. It’s not till the end that Maggie reveals that she found him and took him the rest of the way (to both ours and Forrest’s surprise), revealing the sequence of his traveling to be a probable hallucination. In the film, Forrest never leaves the fill station at all, so by the time Maggie reveals that she was the one who found him laying in a pool of his own blood, the audience has already assumed as much. Worse yet, in this context Forrest’s assumption that he walked himself to the hospital seems completely insane and illogical (since we didn’t even see him try) and plays out as a silly punchline.
While the novel and the script were subtle and complex in their telling of an emotionally resonant human story that subtly demystified the Bondurant boys’ legend while also acknowledging their surreal history, the film settles for lots of anonymous gunplay and broad caricature.
By all means, see Lawless for the performances (Hardy is masterful and Pearce is insane) but don’t be surprised to find out that it’s Hillcoat’s and Cave’s weakest film.