John Hillcoat’s 2012 bootlegger gangster flick Lawless is a film of paradoxes. On the one hand, it’s undoubtedly formulaic: every character is a type, and by the time the bloody-though-neat conclusion arrives, they’ve all become the people you’d expect them to be. Jack Bondurant (Shia LeBoeuf) is the honest one who wants to do right by his brothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy, continuing in his 2012 trend of half-understandable accents) is a man of few words who also can withstand an entire revolver’s worth of bullets, and Howard (Jason Clarke) is the one who’s pretty much there to do whatever either brother wants. The bad guy (Guy Pearce, in his creepiest role to date) who killed an innocent, crippled boy gets a satisfying death scene. The final scene, where the three brothers gather for a warm family dinner with all the post-Prohibition alcohol they want, is about as storybook as a gangster movie can get.
On the other hand, this is a gangster movie written by the always eccentric musician Nick Cave, which means that there are going to be some strange flourishes. For one, there’s Pearce’s character; though he’s shown with a naked woman on his bed at one point, his sexuality is consistently oscillating. Most of the time he’s written as a Really, Really Bad Person, who beats people to a pulp (taking delicate care to remove his bloodied white gloves after the fact) beyond excessive force because, well, the movie is called Lawless. But when Jack calls him a “nance,” it’s as if his whole world has been shattered. Pearce’s scenery-chewing performance doesn’t quite approach the threshold of unintentionally hilarious, but it does become the largest of the film’s many oddities, the other major one being the throwaway role given to Gary Oldman. Few writers besides Cave could take the typical big-city cop role and turn it into an eyebrow-less oddity.
Cave didn’t just let his eccentricities bleed into his screenwriting; it also forms the backbone for the soundtrack. Though he is reunited with frequent collaborator Warren Ellis, instead of crafting another subdued, transcendent score much like the ones done for The Proposition or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the duo has committed to a (mostly) straightforward bluegrass exercise. Wisely, the two take a curator’s approach to the music; instead of being the primary musicians and composers, they’ve gathered a group of bluegrass and country music’s finest to take on their original pieces as well as some interesting cover choices. You wouldn’t ordinarily expect to hear the songs of Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground on a Western soundtrack, but well, this isn’t like most Western films. At least for the most part.
For the purposes of this album, Cave and Ellis formed a group they call “The Bootleggers” to serve as the in-house band to back the many guest musicians present. Most notable is Emmylou Harris, whose turn on “So You’ll Aim Toward the Sky” is the record’s most beautiful moment. Musically, the track is the closest thing here to Cave and Ellis’ best work: minor key, piano-led laments are where the composers’ greatest successes have lied in the past (see “What Must Be Done” from the Jesse James score), and with Harris’ graceful vocal that style is elevated brilliantly. The concluding piece, aptly titled “End Crawl,” also aspires for this moodiness but instead slumps Lawless into its last reel.
The rest of the material, the straightforward stuff, while executed well struggles to be memorable due in large part to the paradox mentioned at the beginning of this review. Take, for instance, the two covers of the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat”: given the subject matter involves drug consumption, the lyrical matter is an obvious fit for Lawless’ violent bootleggers. The song comes in full-band and a cappella iterations, the best being the former. Conceptually this sounds like a great idea: take a contemporary song with a theme similar to the 1920’s setting and play it the style of the time, showing unity between then and now while also presenting a fresh take on a beloved song. As it’s played out, however, it feels more like banal juxtaposition rather than nuanced interpretation. Covers have to do a lot more work than merging two seemingly disparate sonics, and most of the covers on Lawless are based on the one-note premise that making a new song old is enough. Anachronisms can be a playful tool in the hands of the composer and screenwriter, but much like the quirks within the film, these musical oddities don’t give Lawless the excellence that Cave and Ellis’ past movie scores have. They’re just there.
Like its source film, Lawless isn’t bad; it’s just victim to its own unfocused structure. Hillcoat focuses so extensively on period detail that he creates a successfully immersive take on the mountainous, Prohibition-wrecked hills of the American Mideast. At the same time, however, he also lets unnecessary bits of weirdness interrupt that mood. Cave and Ellis, as good as they are, do just the same thing. There’s nothing wrong with a bluegrass take on the Velvet Underground: one just needs to make sure it isn’t as simple as a bluegrass take on the Velvet Underground. Otherwise, any attempts to link modern music with traditional styles ends up bleeding into a homogenous, entirely uninventive set of tracks. The old and the new become one, leaving you with neither.