Double-barrel: Lawless and Killing Them Softly

26 September 2012

Profitable or not, a comparison between the two recently released films reviewed here is inevitable. Each is an adaptation of a US novel directed by an Australian director, and each is set in an hermetic gangland that operates according to its own codes. Both are bruised but brooding worlds: one the Prohibition-era backwaters of Franklin County, Virginia, the other a post-industrial American city whose radio stations and television sets tell of an unfolding economic crisis in some far off distance when the city itself bares the wounds of a long-ago abandonment. I found one film lacking, the other cracking.

Trying to be everything; coulda been something

John Hillcoat follows 2005's The Proposition and 2009's The Road with Lawless, adapted by Nick Cave from Matt Bondurant's 2008 novel, The Wettest County in the World. Bondurant is the grandson of Jack Bondurant, played here by Shia LaBeouf, the youngest of three brothers who run moonshine in Franklin County, 1931. His brothers maintain their tough reputation through grunts and snarls: Forrest (Tom Hardy) is the thinker, Howard (Jason Clarke) the brawler. Both have a swagger to which Jack aspires in spite of his softer touch: he spends much of the first act awestruck, firstly by an encounter with Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), the local mobster whom he admires, secondly by the daughter of the town's Baptist minister and unlikely crush, Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska).

Into town struts Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), a mysterious redhead from Chicago in search of a job; soon after Forrest employs her at the brothers' bar, new Special Deputy Rakes (Guy Pearce) rides in on a high horse. Like his immaculate centre parting, Rakes is straight down the line, the kind of do-gooder who'll abuse his authority just for the sake of it, commiting unimaginable acts in the name of a justice nobody around him believes in. Determined to drive the Bondurants' illicit moonshine production under, he gives Jack a hiding; older brother Forrest is as furious with Rakes as he is ashamed of Jack. Cleaning glasses, Maggie looks on in sympathy.

The film unfolds with an almost parodic machismo. As Forrest, Hardy looks awkward, unable to move around in his cardigan with the same degree of comfort or comic-book suitability as he did in The Dark Knight Rises. It doesn't help that his vocal delivery is more unintelligible than it was in the latter, either. Granted, though, the sense of immortality surrounding Forrest is effectively constructed and, subsequently, exposed as the outcome of myth and self-delusion rather than as fact. Here, as in The Proposition, Hillcoat applies thick bursts of violence that recall both the earlier film and A History of Violence (2005). For a moment, we believe the film's makers have had the audacity to off their protagonist halfway through the second act.

Somewhere along the way, Cave's script becomes unwieldy, striving towards everything when it could have been something. LaBeouf, tasked with a Michael Corleonesque coming-of-age that is meant to carry the film through its latter stages, isn't as big a letdown as some have claimed him to be. The bigger problem is that his character is made to spend too much time chasing a female character we know nothing about other than the fact she's portrayed winningly by Wasikowska. Like Chastain, Wasikowska's talented presence here only draws attention to how underwritten both female parts are. Cave's (and apparently Hillcoat's too) is a man's world, in which everybody would rather fight it out to the death than lose whatever face they have.

Men with hearts

This is also true of Killing Them Softly, whose one speaking female character is a prostitute who exits a scene quicker than it's begun. An atmospheric black comedy adapted by director Andrew Dominik from George V. Higgins' 1974 novel, Cogan's Trade, this oozes an unrivalled sweat and sleaze in following the prolonged fallout of a cardgame heist. Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) hijack the game for Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola), a lowly crook who's convinced they can get away with it because of previous suspicions surrounding its host, Markie (Ray Liotta). When the heist's pulled off, Markie's bosses send in one of their enforcers, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt). Cogan's trade is cleaning up, seemingly, after other people's messes.

A simple premise is made compelling by ellipses and bulked up by talky asides that take place mostly in cars, often at night or under ceaseless rain. Like in his previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Dominik opts for lengthy, conversational stand-offs that are as memorable as the bloody, brutal interludes that punctuate them. He also inclines at points towards a subjective expressionism that appears at first to be incongruous, and risks derailing the otherwise sharp, engaging rhythms of a shot/reverse shot punchiness. Fiercely episodic, however, the film evinces an approach similar to Coppola's when directing murder scenes in his Godfather films: simply, somehow, to make each set-piece memorable in itself, so that no two deaths are the same. Dominik seems to have applied this mantra not only to those moments of wrenching violence, but to the ways in which his excellent ensemble cast enter each frame and interact with one another once in it.

Comprising men with hearts, this clan seems to befit more a comedy of errors or low-brow pop trash than a grandiose, romantic view of the mob world. In a scene that recalls the Royale with Cheese exchange in Pulp Fiction (1994), Russell half-comically boasts to fellow thug Frankie about an omnivorous, anything-goes sexuality that includes men, women and even animals, his skin perpetually shiny with grease and perspiration (Mendelsohn retains his own Australian accent, giving the character a suitably odd sense of below-human otherness). Later in the film, would-be hired assassin Mickey (James Gandolfini) mopes his way through Cogan's briefings, unable to discuss the job at hand without guzzling martinis and pints back-to-back. Embittered by the possibilities of more jail time and a divorce, Mickey arrives in the city as a hitman and leaves following a three-day binge of self-abuse and whore-fucking. Gandolfini steals the two scenes he's in, snapping at Cogan's cautions with raging cacophony: "I was drinking before you came out of your father's cock!"

Overreaching, perhaps, the film's action is set in 2008 and is interspersed throughout with soundbites and news snippets regarding the present economic collapse. With its boardroom hierarchies and cutthroat, reputation-based superficialities, the micro world here mirrors that of the societal structure under which it once blossomed. Like capitalism itself, this underworld's governing rules are endemic, and enforced to the point of absurdity. As the go-between with whom Cogan meets to collect orders from the mob, Richard Jenkins is superb, a visibly confused soul whose changes of heart with regard to Markie's involvement in the catalysing cardgame heist are both amusing and sad. In fact, like the politicians who continue to apologise for an already-discredited economic system, none of the film's characters are able to perspectivise, fulfilling functions for which they're barely fit.

Lean and snappy, Killing Them Softly is a crunching cracker of a movie. It boasts the year's most enthralling opening titles sequence, too.