Lawless: Nick Cave and American violence.

I wrote an article at the start of this blog entitled: Why I love Miller and hate Hemingway, or how I pick and choose my misogynists, and I confess it’s in the spirit of what I talked about there that I have to enter this review of Lawless.

I’m not 100% sure why I love Nick Cave’s films so much – but I do love them. Given I adore his music, (and I mean ADORE – I’m one of those scary defensive fans when it comes to him) I often do not like his writing. I can’t say anything about his King Ink books – I haven’t read them.  And the Ass Saw the Angel is a book I haven’t been able to get all the way through yet. I find it very frustrating and when one reviewer said it looks like Cave just sat down with a thesaurus and searched for grandiose and obscure words, I’m afraid I concur with that assessment. When The death of Buddy Munroe came out, I was so desperate to get my hands on it, I joined Fisher Library because I heard they got a copy 2 weeks before it hit the shelves.  I borrowed it and read it cover to cover that night and hated it. Passionately hated it.  Its one of those books that evokes the great Dorothy Parker quote: “This is a book not to be tossed aside lightly – it must be thrown with full force.”   It was like; I was personally offended that Nick Cave hadn’t written a better book, I was so desperate to read it.

Nick Cave is able to write for the screen, however, in a way he writes his music and in a way he can’t write his books. As a person who follows his career closely, and as a writer,  I find his medium missing and catching very interesting. Lawless isn’t as good as The Proposition, which I happen to think is a masterpiece, but it is still a very good film.  And yet its jam-packed to the rafters filled with many things I have little time for. If Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed this film I think I would be bored silly.  Why can Nick Cave write a gangster film in the prohibition era and thrill me to the core?

Ok, the acting is great. No two ways about it. Just like The Proposition, Guy Pearce is a standout – fantastically sinister and creepy and the best villain I’ve seen in a long time. Tom Hardy is great as Forrest Bondourant, and much of the films brilliance is because of how good he is. The others to mention are John Hillcoat who interprets Cave so very well, and, Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography is beautiful.

But make no mistake this is a Nick Cave film and like The Proposition, it has Nick Cave stamped all over it – something I do not get from his books. Nick Cave is a performer and possibly film is a medium he can visualise in a way he can’t with a book. Having said that, it should be noted The Death of Buddy Monroe started out as a screenplay for Hillcoat and ended up as a novel. Perhaps the trick for him would be to complete it as a screenplay and then adapt it toward a novel. It is possible Cave can’t see (as the author) what it is that makes his writing special. When he has the interpretation of fans, directors and actors it (sort-of) becomes clear.

All this is very interesting but the thing that interests me is why Nick Cave can keep getting away with all this blokey bullshit. And he really does get away with it. The biggest criticism I have read about this film is that people expected it to be a flawless superb film that makes history and it falls slightly short of this ideal.  When the worst thing you can say about a film is that it doesn’t quite make “classic” status, you have a pretty good film. The critics are right, it does slightly fall short of absolute brilliance – but that is also a very Nick Cave phenomena. His oeuvre tends to be easier to explain in retrospect than in real-time, even with his music. Its 20/20 hindsight that makes him brilliant rather than just “really good”.  He’s the kind you need to get involved with, he’s not a cheap fling.

But then, he’s always known that and made that clear in all his art forms.

Part of the problem with Lawless is the American story. The Proposition was so brilliant because Cave managed to do what no one I have ever experienced (except Patrick White who won the Nobel Prize for Literature) as a consumer of art, has been able to achieve – and that is make the Australian landscape a “character”. Cave knew to do this. Australia is very interesting because of the way the land governs the people. It has always been so. Americans, Europeans, Africans and Asians have been able to bend the will of the land to their purposes, or change their cultural practises to include the lands idiosyncrasies, but we Australians have never achieved this. Our enormous sprawling continent remains virtually uninhabitable because of its size and its complete barren deserts. All of us who live here cling to the outer edges like convicts (and the natives before us), as if dipping our toes in our oceans (why do you think we have that “beach” reputation) will keep us safe from the desert that threatens all the time to consume us. To my knowledge (and I may be wrong about this) we have the only flora in the world dependent upon bushfires for its regeneration. This is a merciless land, to be compared with Antarctica rather than the dry sand-filled deserts of the rest of the world. Our deserts are like our native animals. They don’t withhold.  They attack.

Part of what makes Nick Cave remarkable is this complex, unique Australian approach to death and rebirth. In transposing that to an American story, he falls slightly short of the mark because Cave expects the land to be against him, not supporting him. In Lawless, the land is passive, receptive and beautiful. Cave is left with trying to make something of a human enemy – which he does with the best characterisation of the film, Charlie Rakes – a kind of personification of the merciless Australian bush played by an Australian who turns out (despite his pathetic end) to be the strongest character in the film.

But why is it that I can tolerate Cave’s blokiness?  That I can’t really explain except to say, his depth and complexity reach me. I don’t see any of Cave’s characters as “blokey”.  I see them as complex characters at war with the male ego inside themselves – even in his songs. He might be all about violence, death and murder, but it comes from a philosophical place for me – which instantly implies unsure footing and questioning. Cave questions the violence as he portrays it, in the same way prostitution liberates sex by openly commodifying it. Many have shown the prostitute is more honest than the wife, because she holds out her hand after every fuck.  For me, the violence in Nick Cave’s music and films is laced with the same kind of revelations for those of us who never engage.

His question is always, what is holding you back?