John Hillcoat’s got style, that’s for sure. The Proposition (2005) was a great shot in the arm for westerns. Even The Road, though a bit of a failure, was bold in its attempt to adapt such difficult source material. Lawless is his lightest of the three, and easily the least successful.
Tom Hardy continues his run of strong performances with the mumbling, dangerous Forest Bondurant, head of a gang of brother-bootleggers who run against a psychopathic lawman (Guy Pierce as Charlie Rakes).
But the film is really underwhelming. It’s Hillcoat’s most traditional narrative and the script, by Nick Cave (of the Bad Seeds – a frequent Hillcoat collaborator) wants to be grimier than that which plays on-screen. It ultimately feels old-hat despite the strong performances and visuals. Where The Propositions took the formula of Unforgiven and its preceding existentialist westerns and pushed it towards an Outback-ambiguous style, and where The Road complemented Cormac McCarthy’s sparse language with grave, empty wide-shots of its own, Lawless doesn’t seem to have much spark. In fact, Hillcoat seems kind of bored with shooting this traditional plot.
I could go on a bit about character (Rakes is fun, but never surprising. His violence seems to be ingrained in him, but there’s no strong comparison between his brand of violence and Forest’s), but I’d rather, as always, talk about some of the visual elements, because they’re quite strong in here.
I wasn’t able to find a lot of great stills for this one, but here are a few that are circulating online:
The film was shot 2.35:1, and at least these top two images don’t accurately represent that. Nonetheless, they are representative of several types of looks in here (worth noting that Hillcoat comes from the music video world).
That top image happens almost concurrent with the third one. It’s all grays and stands in stark contrast to the saturated, richer counterpart at the bottom. Hillcoat frequently frames similarly to both of these shots in the film- a character surrounded by others. It’s a tough business, bootlegging, and there’s a lot of posturing and violence involved. This strategy of characters lining/circling the background echoes the mob mentality, the us vs. them theme of the film.
That middle image is very center-framed and is a great example of Hardy’s acting even in a still frame. Hands in pockets, he exudes toughness for most of the film simply by standing tall. It’s no easy task.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar
A former student of mine turned me onto this film and I’m glad he did. Richard Brooks’ 1977 film with Diane Keaton and Richard Gere is really great. Keaton’s performance shows her range – she played Annie Hall with Woody Allen that same year.
Prior to this film I best new Richard Brooks from In Cold Blood, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Blackboard Jungle. He fits very much into the category – alongside other directors I’ve mentioned in this blog (i.e. Robert Wise) – of the versatile 60s director who dabbles in many genres in a John Huston kind of way.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar is about a promiscuous teacher (Keaton) who runs into some trouble on the seedy side of NY. It’s a great city-piece, and feels like a complement to The Graduate in many ways.
I love this intro:
Brooks and DP William A. Fraker (Rosemary’s Baby, Bullit) aren’t afraid to let things go so dark as to be nearly underexposed. The still-image titles are like the anti-Saul Bass, pushing instead towards the gritty urban style of a Jerry Schatzberg or a La Jetee reference.
Check out another clip:
It’s poor quality, but that shot starting around 0:23 is some great simplicity. Keaton looks around the bar. Her eyes – and ours – settle on that old couple…and then we just float (pan) over to find Gere leaning back casually. It’s an awesome introduction, and one that really feels opposite the usual “hero” or “person of interest” over-dramatized intro.
Look at how long these shots linger, as well. The main shot here goes from 0:58 to 2:16. It’s well over a minute on a fairly standard 2-shot. It’s testament to how much fait Brooks has in the material and the performances.
Any cut in to a close-up might throw off what is obviously a great chemistry and rhythm to the scene. The 2-shot isn’t flashy, but Gere’s small blocking moments – playing slightly behind her and then to the bar – tell enough about his attitude. The same can be said of where Keaton looks. Or more specifically, how often she looks away from him.