Rayne Wilson casts a critical eye over John Hillcoat's Prohibition-era gangster flick...
From the director of ‘The Road’, comes this prohibition-set drama following the lives of three brothers running a bootlegging business. Refusing to allocate a portion of their earnings to the corrupt authorities earns them the wrath of ‘special agent’ Charlie Rakes (played by an unrecognisable Guy Pearce) whose flagrant disregard for the law sees tensions rise between the law force and the locals.
There are a lot of different narrative strands at work here, but the plot tends to alternate between brooding elder brother Forest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) and runt of the litter youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and they are arguable front runners in a cast of superb actors. As the enigmatic Forest, the unspoken head of the household, Hardy possesses an almost ageless quality, which makes him unbelievably interesting to watch. Forest is a character steeped in mystery and legend and Hillcoat cleverly plays on this through a combination of camera work and Hardy’s intuitive performance. Hardy is shot in such a way as to emphasise his formidable size and youthful good looks yet he carries himself with a kind of weary fatigue and communicates through a series of unintelligible grunts, making it impossible to deduce his age and contributing to the mystical aura that surrounds him. Parts of his dialogue are lost in the garbled thickness of his southern drawl, but you almost get the sense that you don’t need to understand him, as his hulking physicality is such an imposing presence. Despite the attention paid to Jack’s coming of age as he attempts to ape his brothers and become more involved in the family business, the viewer can’t help but pine for Hardy’s presence when he is off-screen. This is not to discount LaBeouf’s fine portrayal of youngest brother Frank; he turns in a very capable performance and this film is as much a coming of age story as it is an insight into the hardships of living through the Depression. However, Hardy is an acting beast and LaBeouf is smart to simply compliment his performance rather than try to counter it. You get a real sense of the brotherly camaraderie between them and Hillcoat does a superb job of communicating this without obvious exposition, instead opting to use simple yet effective visual imagery.
As the enigmatic Forest, the unspoken head of the household, Hardy possesses an almost ageless quality, which makes him unbelievably interesting to watch
Hillcoat noticeably excels with his use of visual language. With lots of earthy hues and natural tones strongly featured from the film’s outset coupled with stunning establishing shots of Virginia’s vast landscapes, Hillcoat creates a rural, grassroots feel which really helps the viewer to buy into the world he’s created. Hillcoat’s camera captures the reverent stillness inherent in nature in a way that recalls Terrence Malick’s ‘Badlands’ and this is nicely complimented by the constant sound of crickets chirping and rain falling that accompanies most sequences. However this film is the equivalent of biting into a warm apple pie only to find it has a crust made of razor blades. Each time Hillcoat lulls the viewer into a false sense of security with a lovely nature shot, there is a sudden burst of brutality to follow it. The film’s tone becomes increasingly dark as the Bondurant brothers continue to tout their moonshine without the protection of the town officials and the film manages to be both tender and brutal in its many depictions of violence. Gary Oldman makes intermittent appearances and does everything a good onscreen villain should; he uses the least amount of on screen time to incite the maximum amount of foreboding with as few words and actions as possible.
The only weak link is Jessica Chastain. All alabaster skin and red nails, she infuses some much-needed sensuality into what is very grimy and gritty set of affairs. Unfortunately, she isn’t given very much to do besides, smoke suggestively and cast doe eyed glances at Forest. Her past is hinted at, but not developed and as the main female character it would have been nice to have seen her given some substance. Another curious detractor is Guy Pearce’s characterisation of Agent Rakes. With slicked back hair, shaved eyebrows and an accent it is impossible to place, he is clearly designed to be a fearsome character. However, his theatrical acting style lapses into caricature and he appears to be attempting to channel ‘Inglorious Basterds‘s’ inimitable Colonel Hans Landa, with his idiosyncratic speech and mannered body language and sadly, it doesn’t quite work.
The film’s pacing is a little inconsistent and at times loses momentum, but the fine performances of its leads neutralise this issue. The characters are well fleshed out and flawed, a compelling combination. Whilst the combination of dark themes, rich imagery and strangely haunting soundtrack could perhaps leave the film struggling for an audience, it is a film which never rests on its laurels and it makes for a suspenseful ride.
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