Lawless well within the limits

Blood-soaked prohibition yarn is a rather rudimentary cocktail

Nick Cave, Aussie rock godfather, poet maudit and screenwriter of Lawless, extends his implications of a murder ballad into this gangster-Western set in Virginia during the Prohibition era. A throat is slit and stitched, people beaten up and burned alive, and an idyllic barnyard is turned into a sadistic abattoir, all presided over by Tom Hardy as the invincible moonshiner Forrest Bondurant and watched on by Jack, poor Jack, his puppy eyed brother played by Shia LaBeouf.

Lawless
Starring Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska.

With the moonscape wilderness of Cave's native Australia in The Proposition _ his previous and much more delicious collaboration with director John Hillcoat _ replaced by the 1920s rustic nervousness of Franklin County, the writer's baroque passion for violence lifts Lawless above the well-thumbed playbook of gangsterish pose and revenge, but only slightly and cursorily.

The film has jolts of dread and calculated savagery, and yet it feels prosaic and uninspired. Pitting immoral lawmen against (relatively) principled thugs are the stuff that Hong Kong and Korean film-makers seem to have lately executed with more flair and relish _ here you admire Guy Peace as the torturer-in-chief and Hardy as a brooding, virtuous murderer, and yet they almost look goofy at certain points. Forrest and Jack Bondurant are, of course, real-life brothers (also the middle one, Howard, played with a scowl by Jason Clarke) who lived and thrived and survived the Al Capone period. Distilling tree bark and apple juice into best-selling moonshine, the Bondurants run up against the new special deputy, Charlie Rakes (Pearce in a pinstripe suit), who demands more cuts and respect. Well, the dandyish special deputy from Chicago will never get that, and things proceed pretty much according to how things like this do in a lawless county of which it's only connection to the outside world _ the city vs the country surfaces from time to time _ is a steel bridge that we see at the beginning and naturally at the end of the movie.

Gunfights and murders _ blood-rushing and macabre _ are the covering of what Cave and Hillcoat seem to really want to achieve, but can't quite. Lawless wants to tell the story of blood baptism, of how the Bondurants, especially Jack and Forrest, journey from one phase of manhood into another, somewhat with the help of their enemies and their women (Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska), just like John Dillinger in Public Enemies or Clyde in Bonnie And Clyde. It's also, from an angle, a story of how the US _ a fairly new world like the Australia of Cave and Hillcoat _ spills blood and black-market whiskey on its own accursed land in order to move on into a new, fresh, probably God-given dream. Close but not quite there.

Sinister
Starring Ethan Hawke and Juliet Rylance. Directed by Scott Derrickson.

Modern tech makes ghosts a lot less Sinister

Ghosts are more terrifying on grainy, flickering 8mm film than on crisp digital screen _ on old silent reels, they're more phantomic, demonic, an unreal existence on the other end of an uncrossable threshold. That's a major contrivance of Sinister, a fairly effective horror film that, thankfully, has real and terrorising demons and not just someone hallucinating or waking up from a very long bad dream.

A pagan myth is mixed with Zapruder-style real-life horror in the story of Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a true-crime writer who's moved, along with his wife and two children, into a house whose previous inhabitants were cultishly killed _ hanged from a tree with their heads covered by sacks. Ellison is re-investigating the case and his relocation into the crime scene has a ring of journalistic grotesquerie that's worthy of Pulitzer _ or Twilight Zone _ consideration. Shuffling boxes and moving stuff, Ellison discovers a strange box full of 8mm home movies in the attic (there's always an attic). Playing the reels, he finds himself watching recordings of twisted, brutal murders through horrid trickeries _ drowning, stabbing, tied up and burned alive, etc. The victims are families in different houses and the timing of the murders spans at least four decades _ and of course, one massacre takes place in the very house Ellison and his family are now living in.

Demonic influences and investigative journalism are strange bedfellows, and yet Ellison delves into it with relish, sinking deeper, eyes increasingly bloodshot, and at one point flirting with The Shining-like fatherly mania. What makes Sinister work, or at least work enough for this kind of derivative ghost hokum, is the fuzzy images on those 8mm film reels, an ancient relic of the olden times when what's captured on film instantly feels like the past tense, tinged with morbid fatality. When the blood-thirsty ghoul finally appears, however, it's disappointing _ because he no longer resides in the grainy pixels and becomes too real, too clear and less frightening.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist