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John Hillcoat’s new movie, Prohibition Era-set Lawless, brings a new level of emotion to the brutality and alpha males of his previous work

Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat has, in the space of five directorial offerings, become known as a purveyor of vivid, visceral yet emotionally honest movies.

The Proposition and The Road were both heartfelt but unmistakably brutal, and his latest offering, 1920s-set outlaw thriller Lawless, is no exception.

However, it was not the violence of Lawless that attracted Hillcoat, but the chance to make a film in one of his favourite genres.

“The appeal was wanting to do a gangster film,” the 51-year-old Queenslander says. “I love gangster films and Westerns, but the problem with those genres is keeping it fresh.

But then coming across this book, it felt it was a Western that became a gangster and I realised, historically, it was almost the tail end of the west and the birth of the gangster period, so that attracted me, too.”

The book in question is 2008’s The Wettest County In The World, a part-fictionalised tale of the notorious US trio of Bondurant Brothers, written by their grandson Matt Bondurant.

The siblings were purveyors of an in-demand moonshine in Depression-era Franklin County, Virginia.

They were a hard bunch who found their business under threat with the arrival of Chicago mobster Floyd Banner (a sparingly used Gary Oldman – “it’s best to leave you wanting more,” Hillcoat says) and brutal Chicago lawman Charlie Rakes (an almost unrecognisable Guy Pearce who’s “usually so invisible, but here brings a James Cagney-type energy”), sent to quash the brothers by any means necessary.

Hillcoat cast Shia LeBouf as the youngest, physically weakest yet intelligent and highly ambitious brother, Jack; Tom Hardy as Forrest, the bruising, protective yet maternal middle son, “a wound-up force of nature, lethal like a snake”; and Jason Clarke as eldest Howard, a disturbed war veteran.

“We felt because Forrest was the matriach and the patriach of this family, we should make him the oldest,” Hillcoat says. “But in those days, it was tradition for the eldest to be given the respect, and Jason Clarke made a compelling case to restore their ages to how they were in the book, with Howard as the oldest. He was absolutely right.

“You have the older brother with his war memories he’s not been able to deal with, he drinks a lot and is unreliable. He hasn’t got the control whereas Forrest has got too much because he was left with the family when his brother was overseas. It made it more dynamic.”

Upsetting the expected dynamic was something Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave (in his third collaboration with the director) gunned for from the start.

“Traditionally in gangster films, these characters go out in a blaze of bullets, we go on the adventure, and we feel good that they’re punished for their sins,” he says. “We wanted to subvert that.”

Indeed, the film is full of contradictions, both in terms of genre expectations and for Hillcoat aficionados.

The Australian’s films aren’t known for their female characters: The Road was a post-apocalyptic father-and-son tale and The Proposition was an Aussie western centred around a band of outlaw brothers.

”What me and Nick loved here were the things that turned the genre on its head, one being the female characters,” he reveals.

“In gangster films, they’re usually the throwaway molls that hardly get a look in. In this story, the strongest person is Maggie [Jessica Chastain].”

Mysterious big city girl Maggie is stronger than the awkward Forrest and ends up taking over part of his role in the family.

“He doesn’t know how to deal with women, especially strong women, and she ends up protecting the whole family and bearing harder truths than they do,” Hillcoat explains.

“We loved that the brothers start believing their own legend but that she sees right through it.”


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Kisses amongst the violence: Lawless director John Hillcoat on his new gangster-western film
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