The first thing you notice about John Hillcoat’s new effort Lawless is the sheer ugliness of it all – the camera is not flattering and for the first twenty minutes seems to merely highlight everything with a perverse staleness.  Gone is the rich texture and verbosity of The Proposition, his first collaboration with screenwriter Nick Cave.  It was an exercise in thick yellows and depth of field.  Here this has all been replaced with an oddly flat structure that, fortunately, builds heavily and eventually quickly.

In this second collaboration, one of the most highly anticipated features of the year, the Bondurant boys play battle with the new county Special Deputy Charlie Rakes.  The Bondurant boys – Jack, Forrest and Howard – are a tough mob, selling moonshine during prohibition era America.  Forrest (Tom Hardy in either pre or post Bane build, a hulking mass of walking brick) is without a doubt the gangs’ leader, using his size and ugly ferocity to intimidate any possible law enforcement issues.

It’s not until Charlie Rakes arrives that any problems are forthcoming.  Played to usual perfection by the chameleon Guy Pearce, he is a terrifying man of limited stature (helped by the almost-vanishing eyebrows and creepily slicked hair).  He is the new swinging dick in Franklin County and wants a cut of their moonshine business and isn’t about to take no for an answer.

From here things don’t turn out as one would initially plan.  There’s a subplot where Jack tries his damndest to take out the local preachers daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) on a date and is met with surprising results.  Forrest does his best to remind everyone whose boss when it comes to moonshine and its here that the film really picks itself up and dusts itself off.

Nick Cave seems to have woken up after the first act and let his fingers run loose with the plot and dialogue.  Like The Proposition before it and his own music and novels, the violence is let out of the front door to play with the neighbourhood kids.  Hillcoat acknowledges this and doesn’t shy from one of Cave’s greatest talents – beauty through disorder.  He knows when to keep the camera focused on its subjects (when the Chicago men don’t take too kindly to the hospitality) and when to turn away (what the very same men do in reply).

What I did find surprising however is the unobtrusive soundtrack.  It’s been a few years since I last saw The Proposition but I’ve played the soundtrack about twice a month since it was released.  There’s not a single melody I can recall from Lawless however; but perhaps that’s the trick behind it all – conviction through subtlety.  Nothing worse than being hammered into the ground with manipulative violins.

The strangest thing about the whole film though – and it’s a biggie – is the massive underuse of Gary Oldman.  He’s the bigshot Gangster with a capital G and even with an amusing introduction where he’s basically the dangling carrot for a thick subplot, he’s immediately relegated to a minor role and proceeds to serve out the remainder of the film as a brief plot device.

Despite this I am curious to see what this duo does next.  We now two films set in ye olden day times and they’re both excellent.  Their ability to work a standard third act into something fantastic is to be revered by filmmakers and critics alike.  Cave obviously has a penchant for such a period of time (just read the first paragraph of his novel And The Ass Saw The Angel) and Hillcoat’s back catalogue (that I’m familiar with) offers the same.  It’s sheer vanity to wish for a certain kind of film to be made, I’m just hoping that they continue to partner up for a few more films at least.  If the same standards are kept, we’re all in for a wealth of treats.  And they even managed to make LeBeouf likeable.

[rating=4]

Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire

Directed by: John Hillcoat

Written by: Nick Cave (Screenplay)

Starring: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBouf, Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke

Lawless is released on Thursday the 11th of October 2012 in Australia.