It’s a little outrageous to think that Christopher Nolan is the current steward of the Batman franchise, and yet he’s never found a juicy villain role for the talented and crafty Guy Pearce, who starred in Nolan’s Memento way back in the day. Pearce is on a bit of a career upswing after some time spent in the weeds, and in Lawless, which screened at Cannes today, he goes full ham (in every sense of that expression) as the baddie on the trail of Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy. Consider this his unofficial audition, Mr. Nolan.
In the Prohibition-era tale, Pearce plays an agent who’s trying to bust in on a bootlegging operation run by brothers LaBeouf and Hardy (there is a third bootlegging brother, played by Jason Clarke, but he seems to mostly exist to bridge the considerable physical gap between the other two siblings). The movie itself, directed by John Hillcoat (The Road, The Proposition), is basically an elevated take on those rowdy period pieces like Young Guns and The Newton Boys that pull together a cast of hot up-and-coming men and hand them tommy guns and scuffed-up period clothing, and in kind, Pearce takes what could have been a colorless role and fills it with enough bright shades to populate a Crayola box.
First, let’s talk about his crazy appearance. Dressed to the nines and drenched in perfume, Pearce plays his agent as an effete dandy with shaved eyebrows, temples whittled into sharp spades, and hair so drastically parted in the middle that he has mowed a wide strip down his head to split it in two. He could basically walk out of Lawless and into The Fifth Element without anyone batting an eyelash. (This is a very good hair movie, in fact: LaBeouf has a slicked-back and shaved-on-the-sides ‘do that recalls both Hitler youth and Williamsburg hipsters, Jessica Chastain’s red ringlets give an Oscar-worthy performance of their own, and when Mia Wasikowska pulls her blonde hair back tightly on her head, she looks like teenage Leonardo DiCaprio dressing up as Gordon Gekko.)
Pearce swans into every scene wearing impeccable gloves on his praying mantis hands, but don’t take his fey affectations for weakness: He’s just as quick to deliver a vast array of beatdowns, including a flurry of tiny punches, a shotgun to the face, or a brutal kick to the ribs. (Essentially, he’s the best sexually ambiguous Final Fight boss ever.) When he’d rather not resort to violence, he still stares sexually unsettling daggers into the movie’s entire cast, man or woman, and when he presses a gun into Shia LaBeouf, you half expect him to spit on it and stroke it. Only Chastain’s hard-living glamourpuss is immune to his vaguely rapey designs, though he still invades her space one night, then dismisses her by saying he’d rather not “drink from a greasy cup.” Good burn, Guy Pearce.
Pearce is best matched with Hardy in their scenes together — Pearce is doing all sorts of crazy business, while Hardy makes his laconic brother communicate volumes through a simple “um” or “uh” — but really, he’s great opposite everyone here. And though he’s introduced with a Chicago accent, he seems to modify his voice in every scene; you’re never sure what his character will do or even sound like. So what are you waiting for, Christopher Nolan? Though you may be handing off the Batman franchise after The Dark Knight Rises, you could at least give the next guy your blessing to hire Pearce, one of the rare actors who seem to get more watchable and clearly gleeful as he ages. Give him a role! Give him all the roles.