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Lawless director likes his violence straight up, with a side of sweet

Director John Hillcoat attends a news conference for the film "Lawless", in competition at the 65th Cannes Film Festival, May 19, 2012.

© Christian Hartmann / Reuters/Reuters

Even though Lawless is opening on Canadian screens a week before the start of the Toronto International Film Festival, its Australian-born director says the city's annual cinematic smorgasbord is rarely far from his mind. "I spent my formative years in Hamilton," explains John Hillcoat, "and it was a big breakthrough for me when I went to the first Toronto festival."

That was in 1976, when the Queensland native was a teenager voraciously devouring art-house imports and the work of the Easy Rider/Raging Bull crowd. Flash-forward 35 years and Hillcoat has become an internationally recognized director in his own right, having fashioned a series of stark, brutal dramas, including 2005's hallucinatory outback Western The Proposition and a well-received 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic novel The Road.

Lawless is also an adaptation, of Matt Bondurant's historical novel The Wettest County in the World, about a trio of bootlegging brothers slinging moonshine and battling federal agents in Prohibition-era Virginia.

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In his book, Bondurant was writing about his actual ancestors; his grandfather Jack is played in the film by Shia

LeBeouf, who gets top billing but fades when placed next to Tom Hardy as his brother Forrest – a soft-spoken Goliath with reputedly supernatural powers of strength and endurance.

"I think that people who live their life to extremes begin to believe in their own immortality," says Hillcoat. "I think that it's a very American thing, that idea of invincibility and individual triumph against all odds."

If Hillcoat was initially drawn to the story because of those rollicking Midwestern tall-tale qualities, he also admits that he was intrigued by the capacity of the characters – and their situation – for violence: Few directors in recent years have etched comparably indelible images of bodily harm as Hillcoat did in The Proposition and The Road.

"It's part of my attraction to genre," he says. "It's about a world where violence exists. For me, it's more about buildup and aftermath. I try to take [violence] very seriously, to show its literal physical impact and make it as chaotic and matter-of-fact as possible, as opposed to a fantasy of it. The climax of a movie like Bonnie and Clyde, which showed the actual impact of Tommy guns … it was shocking, and it still is."

As with The Proposition, Hillcoat's major artistic collaborator on Lawless is fellow Aussie Nick Cave – the idiosyncratic singer-songwriter whose mordant murder ballads have won him a cult following. Cave wrote the screenplay for Lawless, and composed the atmospheric score with Warren Ellis. "We have a great collaborative process," says Hillcoat, but "once the rehearsal period is over, Nick can't tolerate [production]. He gets bored; he doesn't hang around."

Hillcoat thinks Cave tried to inject more levity than usual into the script for Lawless – less a case of Cave trying to stretch his talents than of playing up some of the jet-black humour of his music: "Nick is one of the funnier people I've ever met in my life. It's dark humour, admittedly. We tried to get more tonal range in [Lawless], some real sweetness and tenderness and humour as well. There's definitely more to Nick than meets the eye."

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