Cannes Check: John Hillcoat's 'Lawless'

Posted by · 5:30 am · May 2nd, 2012

The director: John Hillcoat (Australian, 50 years old)

The talent: You want names? You got ’em. Hillcoat’s latest brings together a handful of the industry’s brightest young things, including Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Mia Wasikowska and newly minted Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain. Burnishing the lineup a bit are older hands like Guy Pearce (who worked with Hillcoat on “The Proposition”) and Gary Oldman, also fresh off his first tip of the hat from the Academy. Meanwhile, between Pearce and Wasikowska, plus fellow Aussies Noah Taylor and Jason Clarke in support, Hollywood immigrant Hillcoat remains committed to keeping his home flag flying. 

Also making a very Australian affair of this all-American bootlegging tale is the fact that the screenplay is by rock icon Nick Cave — his first since penning Hillcoat’s 2005 breakout feature “The Proposition.” Naturally, as has been the case with all Hillcoat’s work, Cave (alongside regular collaborator Warren Ellis) is also responsible for the original score.

Further creating the impression of a “Proposition” reunion is that film’s French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, whose scattered CV ranges all the way from “The Scent of Green Papaya” to “One Day.” Hillcoat has also remained loyal to his regular production designer Chris Kennedy and costume designer Margot Wilson, both of whom should have plenty of room to shine here. Oscar-nominated editor Dylan Tichenor (“There Will Be Blood,” “Brokeback Mountain”), however, is new to the mix.

The pitch: One of three genre-oriented American literary adaptations in Competition this year, “Lawless” is based on Matt Bondurant’s 2008 historical novel “The Wettest County in the World” (which was the film’s more intriguing, if less commercially viable, original title), itself based on the youthful exploits of the author’s grandfather and great-uncles. The county in question is Prohibition-era Franklin County, Virginia, where three brothers (LaBeouf, Hardy and Clarke) make a living bootlegging moonshine, rural forerunners of bigger-city gangsters. As LaBeouf, keen to impress a local Amish girl (Wasikowska), attempts to take the business out of the sticks and into the big leagues, their legal transgressions grow ever more extreme — and the potential consequences more severe. Billed as a melding of traditional Western and gangster-movie tropes, this evidently handsome period piece sounds an ideal match for Hillcoat’s elegantly hard-edged sensibility — and should allow him and the audience more fun than “The Road” did. 

The pedigree: Hillcoat is one of only four filmmakers in Competition who has never brought a film to any strand of Cannes before, though he’s by no means an unknown property: he made his feature debut in 1988, though most of us only registered his name by the time “The Proposition” (his third feature) rolled around. Still, that film and “The Road” have been enough to establish a clear aesthetic for the director, if not a consistent critical reputation: admired by many, adored by few, his 2009 Cormac McCarthy adaptation was perhaps over-burdened with expectations. It did, however, compete at Venice, thereby getting the director into the lofty Euro-festival club.

The buzz: With a labored production history (shooting was set to start over two years ago, before financial troubles got in the way), a flip-flopping title (it was briefly named “The Promised Land” between two “Wettest County” incarnations, before the Weinsteins finally made the switch to “Lawless” in March) and assorted release-date shuffles (a 2011 bow was rumored, before the film was set for spring 2012 and finally pushed back to an unprepossessing late-August slot), the film, perhaps through no fault of its own, has given industry observers much cause to be nervous. After all, “The Road” had a similarly muddled route to release, and wound up underperforming. Now, however, things seem to have stabilized: the first trailer was unveiled yesterday and has been well-received across the blogosphere. We’re getting excited again.

The odds: Star-studded Hollywood thrillers don’t go to Cannes looking to win the Palme d’Or. The bounty they’re after is critical acclaim, which, combined with the prestige sheen afforded by a Cannes premiere, can be parlayed into upscale box-office and awards-season momentum. That was exactly how it worked for “LA Confidential” and “No Country for Old Men,” neither of which took any prizes on the Croisette but wound up winners in the long run. An equivalent trajectory would represent the ideal outcome for “Lawless” — though the movie, obviously, first has to be up to scratch. 

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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