Lawless Heart (and a little hardcore)

It’s been nearly a week since I saw “Lawless Heart”, a magnificent, intelligent British film made in 2001 that’s just making its way around the art house circuit in the States. Directors Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter were previously responsible for a gay flick called “Boyfriends” that I’d never heard of. I wouldn’t go so far to call “Lawless Heart” a gay film (even though one of its central characters is); I’d rather call it a people film, specifically people left behind by the accidental drowning death of Stuart, a restaurateur in a small coastal town near the Isle of Man. The film goes through the week following Stuart’s death three times, each time focusing on a different man. First up is his brother-in-law Dan (the terrifically sour Bill Nighy), a weary, middle-aged farmer disillusioned in every way. The second man, Nick (Tom Hollander), is Stuart’s younger lover. He’s at a shambles as what to do with his life hopes Dan and his wife (Stuart’s brother) will give him the money Stuart left behind (Stuart did not, alas, leave behind a will.) The third man, Tim (Douglas Henshall), is a distant cousin to Stuart who left town years ago. Rambling, transient, and a little irresponsible, Tim attempts to make peace with his parents, and also starts dating a woman, Leah (Josephine Butler) who has serious ties with his adopted brother David (Stuart Laing), who works for Dan and his family.

The structure sounds like a shrewd gimmick, but it’s neither yet another tired variation on “Rashomon” nor a tribute to “Run Lola Run”. Instead, while each section follows the same period of time, and a few of the same scenes appear in multiple sections, each section reveals a little more about characters and plot than the previous one. For instance, in Dan’s section, he has a tryst with a young woman he’s picked up who mistakes him for a cabdriver, but we don’t find out any more about her until Tim’s section. Likewise, a gaudy yellow-and orange scarf first shows up as a present in Dan’s section, then as an article of clothing mysterious worn by Tim in Nick’s section, and finally, its real origin and significance is brought to light in Tim’s section. Such a device could come off as arch or labored, but here, it’s often ingenious--subtly, unexpectedly, and almost magically making itself known. As details and revelations accumulate, they form a rich, complete portrait of an intensely specific community following one of its inhabitant’s deaths.

As you would expect with this type of construction, each part of the triptych is more effective than the last, although Nick’s section is remarkably moving, thanks in part to Hollander’s beautifully realized turn as what is essentially a widow, even if others like Dan have difficulty understanding the complexity of the relationship Nick had with Stuart. Sukie Smith is also outstanding as Charlie, an impulsive, energetic but borderline exasperating woman who, through various twists of fate, becomes a strange but believable figure in Nick’s life. Some great films flamboyantly dazzle you with their skill and style, like “Beau Travail” or “Waking Life”. Others, like this one, are more unassuming and understated, their invention and superb dramatization and reflection of the human spirit gradually sinking in. “Lawless Heart” is a quiet, utterly compelling achievement.


Last week, while listening to that Ryo Okumoto record, I complained about how much I despise prog rock. Now, I’m listening to the hardcore, sub-Black Flag quartet Leviathan, and I’m actually longing for Okumoto’s masturbatory keyboard solos and gospel chant of “CHECK-POINT CHARLIE, GIVE IT ALL UP TODAY!” Even though I’ve never had as much use for Henry Rollins as a musician (apart from Black Flag’s uproarious “TV Party”, which gives a shout-out to the Jack Klugman show “Quincy”), he gets by on a humor and a charming personality (even if it’s not always prevalent in his music). Leviathan, on the other hand, are one-note, by the numbers grindcore slugs, and at 27 minutes, their EP is not brief enough. It’s a record where the only unique, sit-up-and-pay-attention touch is a lone, weird stretch of Peggy Lee “Fever” style bass on one song.