Messy, dirty, rough. 'Lawless' in Cannes...

Violent gangster thriller fails to liven up film festival

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The Independent Culture

The Prohibition gangster thriller unveiled at Cannes yesterday was a strong draught yet not intoxicating enough to liven up what's so far been a sluggish Film Festival. Set in early 1930s Virginia, Lawless is as American as it gets, yet is a largely Australian undertaking, with a couple of major British names and a few from the US making up the numbers.

The Antipodeans in question are the director John Hillcoat and singer-songwriter-novelist Nick Cave, writing his second script for Hillcoat, after the outback Western The Proposition; he also contributed the bluegrass score. Alongside the Australian actors Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska and Jason Clarke, Tom Hardy represents the UK, playing the tough-as-nails leader of an Appalachian bootlegging clan, and Gary Oldman appears as a Chicago mobster.

The US stars are Shia LaBoeuf and Jessica Chastain, who's been an inescapable screen presence (The Help, Coriolanus, Take Shelter) since making a splash as a near-unknown in last year's Palme d'Or winner The Tree of Life.

Lawless is not likely to scoop a Palme – as hillbilly mobster movies go, it's hardly Bonnie and Clyde, which Hillcoat has confessed is a primary model. But, while critics here haven't been enamoured, Lawless stands to impress the fan-boy audience on the strength of its whole-hearted violence, which includes throat-slitting, castration and hot tar on a man's back – along with plentiful firing of Capone-vintage machine guns.

At the press conference – attended by most of the talent, bar Gary Oldman – LaBoeuf defended the film's brutality: "It's messy, it's dirty and it's realistic. It's not rehearsed like a ballet – it's rough round the edges." The content, Nick Cave added, came very much from the film's source, The Wettest County in the World, Matt Bondurant's fact-based novel about his bootlegger grandfather.

Cave admits the film took some liberties with the original material: "I don't think there's such a thing as a true story. It was the flavour of the book that took me. The classical love story and the excessive violence – those two coming together really titillates me. I'm not that interested in violence per se in movies. It's the way John Hillcoat deals with violence that's exciting and refreshing – it's brutal, it's all over very fast, it leaves a huge mess behind."

Cave also pointed out the film's present-day relevance: "This is a modern film in its way. Prohibition exists today, and it still fails epically – especially in the so-called War on Drugs." A heavily bearded Hardy agreed: "There's a good argument to say legalise drugs and a not-so-great argument for the opposite. My stance is, whatever floats your boat, just don't get caught."

In a fairly sober press conference, it was Cave who provided the liveliest moments.

Asked about getting older, he confessed: "My memory's gone and I have to use the thesaurus a lot." But his fire as a wild man of rock clearly hasn't dimmed. "He's a son of a bitch, this guy," he muttered audibly about a long-winded questioner.

Meanwhile, despite the signs being good – with a selection studded with major acting and directing names – the 65th Cannes Festival has felt like a damp squib so far, not helped by overcast skies and intermittent showers. One of the competition's most awaited films, Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone, starring Marion Cotillard, wasn't quite the tour de force everyone hoped for after the French director's hit prison thriller, A Prophet. Audiences were divided over the lively but rambling Reality, by Matteo Garrone: an exuberant but barbed satire on reality TV, about a Neapolitan fishmonger driven mad by dreams of getting on to Italy's Big Brother.

The only really substantial competition film so far has been Beyond the Hills, by Romania's Cristian Mungiu, whose abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was a surprise Palme d'Or in 2007. This one too could conceivably win, but it wouldn't be a popular choice – at two and a half hours, it's a severe tragedy about two young women's grim experiences in a fanatical religious community.

Palme d'Or contenders?

Last week, I made the mistake of saying that Cannes 2012 would live on prestige alone even if half the films were duds. So far, more than a few have been just that. So what remains to save the Croisette's glory?

Quite a lot, fingers crossed. Rumour has it that Love, by Michael Haneke, inset – starring Isabelle Huppert as a woman tending to elderly parents – will be another of his masterpieces.

Hotly awaited too is the comeback of French enfant terrible Leos Carax, whose Holy Motors is a parallel-lives story with a bizarre cast that includes Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue. Twilight kids Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart step into daylight – respectively in David Cronenberg's hotly tipped Cosmopolis, and in Walter Salles's adaptation of Kerouac's On the Road. Then there's shiny-faced Zac Efron in US thriller The Paperboy, with Nicole Kidman.

Other A-listers include Brad Pitt (Killing Them Softly), and Matthew McConaughey and Reece Witherspoon in Mud, a drama by little-known US director Jeff Nichols, whose past form (notably Take Shelter) raises hopes that his third film will be something special.

Jonathan Romney