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May 19, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

The most pertinent footage in director John Hillcoat’s Lawless, which screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival today (Saturday), may have ended up on the proverbial cutting-room floor. The film, starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, and Guy Pearce, tells the purportedly true story of the Bondurant brothers, who ran a moonshine operation in Virginia during Prohibition and were forced to take on Chicago gangsters on the one hand and corrupt police and feds on the other in order to keep their operation going. It all makes for a sentimental film about macho brotherly love punctuated at short intervals with violent scenes that would make most classic gangster movies seem sterile by comparison. At a news conference following a press screening where the movie was greeted with both boos and applause, Hillcoat said that he had originally planned to put the violence in perspective by opening the movie with a retrospective montage, beginning with the current wave of Mexican drug-cartel killings, then back through the cocaine and heroin wars in New York in the ’80s, and finally landing in the era of Prohibition in the 1920s and early ’30s. “That was the birth of serious organized crime, and it’s been going ever since. So it feeds into all of those things that are going on today,” the Australian director said. But for a reason that he did not explain, he decided to remove the opening montage, presumably in the belief that the audience would put two and two together on their own. But without that footage, some critics have suggested that the movie amounts to a pointless war exercise. “The violence is gruesome, and perpetual, with a particularly horrible tar-and-feather scene — and yet nothing somehow seems to be at stake for anyone, and the brutality seems to be there simply to underline how tough and real it all is,” wrote Peter Bradshaw in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. On the other hand, David Rooney commented in the Hollywood Reporter: “If Lawless doesn’t achieve the mythic dimensions of the truly great outlaw and gangster movies, it is a highly entertaining tale set in a vivid milieu, told with great style and populated by a terrific ensemble. For those of us who are suckers for blood-soaked American crime sagas from that era, those merits will be plenty.” Other critics suggest that it’s likely to find a lot of such “suckers.” If it does, it will amount to a kind of vindication for Hillcoat, who told today’s news conference in Cannes that “the state of things is pretty tough” for directors like himself to make films like Lawless. He said he prefers “to work in a world of medium budgets to make films about character and drama, and those are words you cannot use in the United States at this time, and that I find quite distressing.”