The Costumes of ‘Lawless’ (2012)

Whether or not it holds any interest by the time Academy Awards nominations roll around, or even has maintained it up to this point, Lawless has kicked off the fall awards season in style. Mind you, it’s not anywhere close to reciprocating the scale of summer’s most revered blockbusters, but it’s more in line with that crowd than it is in the company of awards bait. One most beguiling of cinematic hybrids, Lawless could care much less for the accolades its placement in the year makes it rather unlikely to receive. That doesn’t hold it back from assembling a compelling visual atmosphere for its tale.

The production design is an appropriately small scale achievement of rurally specialized focus, offering layered spaces for Benoît Delhomme’s  cinematography to light deeply contrasting hues. The contrasts that most implicitly state the film’s character-centric beliefs, however, are in Margot Wilson’s singular, yet divisive, costume ensemble. Director John Hillcoat’s previous feature, The Road, handled very similar stylistic sensibilities, though Wilson’s costume design on that particular feature was largely grounded in the look of the present, albeit frozen indefinitely.

Lawless gives her a more diverse, not to mention more optimistic, period for her to work in; the prohibition era countryside. With such an ensemble variety of characters, each with different intentions, insecurities, and dreams, the only limitations were how detailed Wilson was willing to go with it. While all the costumes are of a periodic piece, they stray from one another in a way that’s innocuous at first. One could easily walk out of the theater without noticing any difference in the clothes worn by the Bondurant brothers, played by Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, and Shia Labeouf. Look a little closer and you’ll find that these three boys, all cut from the same cloth, are about as distant as Franklin County, Virgina is from Chicago, Illinois.

Hardy’s Forrest Bondurant, pack leader as far as anybody in town is concerned, is never caught dead in anything of business attire. Much like Hardy’s recent work as Bane, Forrest is always dressed to fight. It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to think Forrest’s muscles simply came from hauling around the heavy coats he wears. That cardigan is Forrest’s aloof armor, almost hypocritically uncaring if a fight’s coming his way, but they are also the kind of clothes he was affectionately born in. Nothing has been adjusted about Forrest, as he is not only comfortable, but committed to who he is and where he has come from.

Forrest’s right-hand brother Howard, played by Clarke, is also dressed in the clothes he was birthed into, but it doesn’t seem like he’s changed them once in his entire life.  Known as the mad dog of the trio, Howard is constantly in full momentum towards a scuff-up, and he wears those fights on him like a badge of honor. His clothes are clearly worn and tattered, edging on falling apart, but comfortably maintained as part of Howard’s skin.

Youngest brother Jack, played in career form by Labeouf, is established very early on as being nothing like his brothers. The clothes he wears early on are pretty much hand-me-downs from his brothers, and he does not wear them comfortably. It’s not until his progression later on in the film that he finds his own groove, though still within the Bondurant closet. “He’s wearing dad’s old suit,” one of Jack’s brothers says at a point in the film. That states much of where Jack’s ambitions lie, in an upstanding business sort of fashion. He’s still getting into the swing of it, naturally forgetting to take the tags off his newer suits, but they lead him to a climactic attire that is both comfortable and confident.

Jack Bondurant’s finale attire pays something of homage to the idol in his world, Floyd Banner, played by an idol in our world, Gary Oldman. Oldman’s attire speaks as somebody who has worked long and hard fashioning his style, finding new ways of supporting it. Fancy new technology called suspenders. Thing of the future, right?

An opposite number to Oldman’s attire is that of Guy Pearce’s supercilious lawman, Special Agent Charlie Rakes. The moment you lay eyes on Rakes, you know you’re meant to hate him unconditionally. Such an outrageous embodiment absolutely demands a wardrobe that accentuates that craziness. Overwrought in stripes and dots, but every single one precocious in place, Rakes is high-maintenance to a mentally deranged degree. The most dot-on-the-flaming-money accessory to Pearce’s exterior body, however, is indoor gray, outdoor oily black gloves he uses to dispense his sickening brand of cruelty. If Rakes turned out to be an evil witch, I think we would have entirely bought it.

What balances out the absurdity of Rakes are the lovely seams of the film’s two female romantic interests, played by recent breakthrough actresses Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska. Chastain’s Maggie Beauford likely offered the most fun opportunity to bring city life into a country aesthetic. Not ignorant of its rural surroundings, Maggie’s cotton-candy blues and warm sweater reds take the edge mindfully off of the growing tensions. Unfortunately for her, Maggie is worn down by the events of the film, putting on a radically faded gown in one of her last scenes of the film. The colour’s still in her, but only just.

Less colourful, but no less lovely is the regular wardrobe of Wasikowska’s Bertha Minnix, a mix of deep grays and light tans stitched into wool. What could have been something plain is instead a look of purity, with a light rag on her head making her simply the most adorably coveted object Jack Bondurant just cannot have. Not for lack of trying, of course, as his attempts to woo her lead to the single most breathtaking costume decision of Lawless: the dress Jack buys for Bertha. It works so beautifully in terms of both Jack’s character motivations and that single moment in the film. It has to be the sort of dress Jack knows Bertha would look gorgeous in, but also the kind that would make the audience fall in love with her in that moment as deeply as he does.

As ridiculous as avoiding spoilers in respects to something as simple as a costume may sound, it is absolutely a necessity in relation to the sight of Mia Wasikowska in that bright, adorable, and optimistic dress. Margot Wilson’s work in Lawless becomes inseparable from the magnificent film it’s attached to, leading people continuously back to the heart of the piece.

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  • wow this is an amazing piece Duncan. A great first article for you on Film Misery. I haven’t seen Lawless yet but as i was reading through the costume breakdown of different characters, it simply gave me a great idea about the characters and the whole feel of the movie. I am even more intrigued now to watch Lawless.

  • Beautiful first piece, Duncan.

    Too often – and believe me, I am a total culprit here – people fail to give credence to the thought and effort that goes in to costume design, as it is so influential in how we perceive the characters and how they represent a movie’s themes. I think this is an incredibly unique perspective on ‘Lawless’ – one I am not sure many other people are even considering. Thank you for this!

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