I’ll say this right off the bat: do not watch Man Down if you’re already in a mood, because it will emotionally lay you the fuck out. I learned that the hard way the other night. Billed as a war film, marketed as such and discreetly snuck onto iTunes without so much as a hint of theatrical release, its easy to see why they’ve tried to bury this one, it’s the bleakest film I’ve seen so far this year, and possibly the previous one. If there’s any doubt still surrounding Shia Labeouf’s acting talent (there shouldn’t be at this point), his work here should solidify greatness. All publicity antics and oddball muckery aside, he’s proven time and again that he’s one hell of a performer, and this is the best work he’s ever done, by a long shot. As Afghan war vet Gabriel Drummer, he’s put through an emotional wringer, sent back to an America ravaged by some vague pandemic, on a hopeless mission to locate his wife (Kate Mara) and young son (Charlie Shotwell). Joined by his best friend and fellow soldier Devin (Jai Courtney), Gabriel’s mission seems hazy and desperate, his family always just out of reach, tormented by the psychological wounds of combat but determined not to give up. This is interspersed with an extended dialogue scene between him and General Peyton (Gary Oldman, restrained, patient and careful), in which he heartbreakingly opens up about the horrors he has seen. This is where Labeouf shines, his tears uncannily genuine, his work visibly shaking up Oldman and tearing at the edges of the screen in it’s implosive intensity. Trust me, this is not the film you are expecting, not even close. By the time the third act rolls around and you see what’s really going on, you’re emotionally sucker punched when least expecting it, and the film’s quiet, devastating anti-war message is hit home with the force of a sledgehammer. I can’t say too much more without ruining it, but it’s one of the most thoughtful, understanding war films I’ve seen, one that gets the reality of what it’s like to have seen such atrocities, and come out of it a different person. Strong, stinging stuff that takes a while to shake off.
John Hillcoat’s Lawless is the very definition of badass. Bathed in blood and moonshine, gilded by Nick Cave’s rustic, textured musical score and brought alive by vivid and varied performances from an eclectic, grizzled cast, it’s one of the most enjoyable gangster pictures to come along in recent years. It follows the rough and tumble Bondurant brothers, fabled bootleggers who defy prohibition and run their product all over the aptly named ‘wettest county in the world’, until the greedy and very corrupt arm of the law snakes its way into the territory. The eldest and toughest is Forrest, a grumbly, shambling Tom Hardy who’s something of a gentle giant, until the straight razor comes out and he’s not. Jason Clarke is Howard the booze hound, who has sour mash coursing through his veins and a temper to prove it, and Shia Leboeuf, somewhat miscast, does his best as the youngest of the three. The three of them run an idyllic little manufacturing and distribution ring spiralling out of their county into the nearby area, until trouble comes looking for them, in the form of a monster played by Guy Pearce. Now when I say monster, I mean it.. when the villain in your film is scarier than Gary ‘Scary’ Oldman’s roguish supporting work, you know you have one hell of an antagonist. Pearce, sporting a sour look and parted hair that Moses could lead his people through, is Charlie Rakes, some kind of government dispatched deputy whose sole purpose is to make out heroic trio’s lives exceedingly difficult. Cheerfully sadistic and ruthlessly corrupt, Rakes is a bona fide moustache twirling psychopath and Pearce milks the role for all it’s worth, as per usual in his case. Oldman does appear briefly but memorably as lively gangster Floyd Banner, a shark of a businessman with a fondness for tommy gun tantrums resulting in vehicular mayhem. The film walks a line between two distinct tones, which can be seen in the characteristics of the pair of older brothers: Hardy is laid back, laconic and ambles along at his own pace, which any film set in the south just has to have a bit of, whilst Clarke is volatile, fired up and hot blooded, also needed in crime fare. So you have a relaxed, violent, wistful piece with a mean streak that sneaks up on you more than a few times. Any Ozark tale wouldn’t be complete without a romantic flair, as Hardy is swept off his feet by mysterious, plucky Jessica Chastain and Lebeouf has an eye for a beautiful Amish girl played by Mia Wasikowska. The film looks visually magnificent, shot in broad, sturdy rural strokes by Benoit Delhomme, and strict, impressive attention to detail is paid throughout. While maybe not as gritty or mythic as it wants to be, or at least as far as Hillcoat’s previous work has been (The Proposition remains the stomach churning gold standard), it’s a full blown, R rated crime picture, something more than welcome in an age when the genre has had its blood somewhat watered down. Highly recommended.