I don’t have any more information on the new Bob Dylan album, Tempest, following last week’s newsletter and blog on Friday confirming the track listing, so apologies to all the readers who have written in, hungry for further details about the record. The absence of anything further I can tell you at the moment about Tempest gives me, however, the opportunity to briefly sing the praises of Lawless, the new movie from director John Hillcoat and Nick Cave, who’s written the screenplay, as he did for The Proposition, Hillcoat’s savage outback Western.
Lawless is a violent hillbilly gangster epic set in Franklin Country, Virginia, in 1931, towards the end of the Prohibition era. The Bondurant brothers – Forrest, Howard and Jack – are infamous bootleggers, flagrant law-breakers but hugely popular with the local folk thirsty for the moonshine they brew at their secret stills. For the close-knit community they were born into, the Bondurants – Forrest and Howard, especially – are almost mythical figures, thought to be invincible, beyond the jurisdiction of the law, untouchable. This is a view shared by the Bondurants themselves, especially Forrest, who is both fearsome and fearless and in the hulking shape of a bulked-up Tom Hardy absolutely larger than life.
Things are going well for everyone until the arrival of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, whose mission it is to destroy the Bondurants and their bootlegging empire. Played with sinister panache by an unrecognisable Guy Pearce, looking as outlandish as the villain in a super-hero movie, Rakes is a sadistic dandy. He’s not on the scene for long before the bodies start piling up, some of them in mounds as his crackdown on the Bondurants’ operation escalates into something approaching all-out war. Gary Oldman’s in the mix, too, in scene-stealing overdrive as a deranged mobster, devilishly handy both with a shovel and a submachine gun.
The performances on all fronts are outstanding, with Hardy and Jason Clarke as the older Bondurant brothers especially impressive, Hardy moving through the film like a be-vested, cigar-chomping force of nature. Shia LaBoeouf, looking at times uncannily like a very young Russell Crowe, is good, too, as feckless young Jack Bondurant, even if his transition from likeable family runt to a kind of hillbilly Tony Montana doesn’t quite convince.
Cave’s screenplay is based on a novel called The Wettest County In The World by Matt Bondurant, a descendent on the film’s three brothers and based, we are therefore asked to believe, on a true story. The basic storyline of Lawless, however, could have been spliced together from a number of earlier movies – Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us came to mind a couple of times, as did Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing and also The Long Riders, Hill’s tremendous 1980 Western about Jesse James, which similarly pitted a rural southern outlaw clan against repressive authority.
Cave has also composed the film’s incidental music with Bad Seed/Grinderman cohort Warren Ellis (with whom he also wrote the terrific score for The Proposition and Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). Cave and Ellis also feature alongside fellow Bad Seed and Grinderman bassist Martyn Casey as members of The Bootleggers, who provide a secondary soundtrack. This is an amazing concoction of covers of songs by Link Wray, Townes Van Zandt, John Lee Hooker and Captain Beefheart, the most spectacular of which is an unbelievable version of The Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” by 85-year old bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, whose “O Death” was one a highlight of the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou that T-Bone Burnett put together for the Coen brothers.
Lawless opens in the UK on September 7, hopefully at a cinema near you, meanwhile have good week.