Cannes 2012: Shia LaBeouf’s ‘Lawless,’ parable for the drug war?


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CANNES, France -- With its atmospheric period details and heavy helpings of outlaw violence and dialects, the Prohibition-era bootlegging drama ‘Lawless’ practically smells like it’s from another era.

But those who worked on the Shia LaBeouf-Tom Hardy movie, which has its black-tie premiere Saturday night at the Cannes Film Festival, say it’s surprisingly of the moment.


‘There are a lot of parallels to today, with the economic crisis, the political crisis, the war on drugs,’ director John Hillcoat told reporters at a press conference Saturday morning after the drama screened for media. ‘At one point we even had a montage at the beginning with what was happening now with the Mexican cartels, and that wound back to the ‘80s cocaine wars in Cuba and heroin in New York ... until we landed on Prohibition.

‘That was the birth of serious crime,’ the Australian director added, ‘and it feeds into everything that’s going on today.’

Based on Matt Bondurant’s family memoir ‘The Wettest County in the World,’ ‘Lawless’ centers on a group of brothers in 1920s Franklin County, Va., who find their lucrative bootlegging business threatened by rivals as well as a conniving law-enforcement officer (played by Guy Pearce). There are numerous gun battles and moments of heavy violence -- and not the kind of abstract or poeticizied violence one might typically expect from a Cannes film.

‘That’s the way Hillcoat does his violence,’ said LaBeouf, who brings a certain level of candor to film festivals (two years ago at Cannes he admitted that he and the filmmakers ‘botched’ the latest Indiana Jones). ‘It’ s messy, it’s dirty, it’s realistic. It’s not rehearsed like a ballet.’

Nick Cave, the musician turned screenwriter who wrote the script, said it was a kind of bloodlust that made him want to write the film.

‘I didn’t have that much interest in when it was actually set. It was more the flavor of that book that took me ... the excessive violence,’ he said, then deadpanned, ‘That’s what titillates me, sentimentality and excessive violence.’


Much of the violence of the 1920s, of course, stemmed from the ill-conceived ban on alcohol, prompting both Hardy and LaBeouf to be asked if today’s war on drugs was similarly misguided.

‘As the professional -- in retirement,’ Hardy began, then paused. ‘I don’t want to make any political statements. There’s a good argument to say ‘legalize drugs’ and a good argument to say [don’t] .... That’s my stand -- whatever floats your boat.’ Then he added, “Just don’t get caught.’

LaBeouf, who in the past has had a reputation for wild living, seemed set to answer the question when the moderator instead stepped in to call on another reporter. ‘Next question, next question,’ LaBeouf said, smiling.


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-- Steven Zeitchik