There’s a lot of love around for Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds at the moment after their outstanding set at Glastonbury. The 10 minute “Stagger Lee” is a piece of resistance that actually becomes mesmeric. It reminds us that they are as much about the now as the then. Of course Nick & the band had always kept it fresh. 2007’s “Grinderman” project was rough & we were ready for it. I need to check for this year’s record “Push The Sky Away” but seeing the 2012 film “Lawless”, written by Cave & directed by John Hillcoat had been on that too long to-do list for some time so I did that this week. The soundtrack, compiled by Nick & band-mate Warren Ellis, opens with Mark Lanegan’s take on a great song by the legend, Fred Lincoln “Link” Wray Jr.
John Hillcoat has been a man to watch since the early 1990s when I saw his 1st film “Ghosts Of The Civil Dead” (1988) & had the utter, utter crap scared of out me. (Hey, I’m a film critic !) “Ghosts” is a brutal, brutish, nihilistic & pessimistic prison movie. It is low-budget but not exploitative, violent but still understated. It is a great work. Nick Cave has a co-writing credit (with Hillcoat & 3 others), the Bad Seeds make the music & he acts in the film. As his character wrote on his cell wall in his own blood I was relieved to see a familiar face. The guerrilla realism of the film makes you doubt what you are watching. It was 10 years before there was another Hillcoat directed release & no-one has seen that. In 2005 the pair were reunited for the Australian Western “The Proposition”, a film that we have all seen.
“The Proposition” is just a proper film. The attempt to apply a veneer of colonial civilization to a wild, desolate Outback echoes other Australian movies, “The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, “Walkabout” & “Rabbit Proof Fence”.The international cast all brought their A-game but it is the raw visual beauty & the tone of moral ambiguity which makes it a fine experience. I had read “And The Ass Saw The Angel”, Cave’s novel, the gothic grotesqueries & the religiosity were a little ornate. Now, in collaboration, the Aussie pair found a restraint to keep it simple. The characters did not wear either white hats or black hats & this blurred idealism helped the film. It made you think…but not too much.
Of course Hollywood came calling & there was only 4 years before another film. “The Road” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, a stark fable set in a post-apocalyptic world. There are a lot of these minatory movies around, America really wanted to believe that the End Times were right here, right now in the decade after 9/11. “The Road” (2009) is bleak & desolate but the film emphasises the emotional impact on a father & his son. Viggo Mortenson, coming off 2 fine performances for David Cronenberg, is The Man & he does it right. Once again the strokes are broad & better for being so. When a film dresses to impress or reaches for the whistles & bells…well, I’ve seen “The Book of Eli”. Of the dystopic dramas “The Road” & “Children of Men” (2006), another hopeful story, are the best of the bunch.
“Lawless” is a gangster movie, Nick Cave’s script is adapted from a 2008 book about a band of bootlegging brothers from Virginia. The film plays fast & loose with its references. Here is 86 years old Dr. Ralph Stanley, a bluegrass legend (winner of a Grammy for his work in “O Brother”) singing “White Light White Heat” the 60s Velvet Underground classic, backed by the Bootleggers, a band assembled by Cave & Warren Ellis to make a spirited attempt at traditional American music…Lovely. It is no sepia-tinted view like “Last Man Standing” or as over-inflated as “Public Enemies” There are though echoes of “Thunder Road”, “Bonnie & Clyde”, “The Untouchables” & “The Godfather”…all good ones. Filmed in digital clarity the cricks & hollers have never looked so good.
There is another fine cast. Tom Hardy is as bad-ass as he was in “Bronson”, there is not enough Gary Oldman while Guy Pearce is pure nastiness, looking like a cross between Don Ameche &, erm, Nick Cave. Mia Wasikowska is pale & beautiful enough to star in Jarmusch’s new vampire film, she was good in “Stoker” too. The only problem is, of course, Shia the Beef.Man, that guy is going to have to be as good as this in a few more films as good as this before we can even think about forgiving him for those “Transformers” travesties.
“Lawless” is another violent film with themes of family loyalty & revenge. After 3 films it is possible to locate common motifs in Hillcoat’s work. “The Road”, because it was the film of a book that some Americans had read, was a prestigious vehicle for the director & he chose not to play it for a big audience but to stick with the personal touches which made “The Proposition” a 21st century Western that paid its respects to the tradition. “Lawless” is a cool film that does not attempt to be more than it is. There is blood & gore, car chases, flash Chicago hoods, tommy guns…all that stuff you need. I doubt that Hillcoat & Cave will ever hit the box-office bonanza but whatever films they make in the future are going to be worth watching. Not a false step yet.