“I’m a bad motherfucker, don’t you know / And I’ll crawl over fifty good pussies just to get to one fat boy’s asshole …” — Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Stagger Lee”
In Nick Cave’s 1995 take on the “Stagger Lee Blues,” an often-covered American folk song about a murderer named Stagger Lee, Cave twists the original tale. Now Stagger Lee isn’t just a murderer, he’s a gay murderer, and he forces his victim, “Bill Dilly,” to perform oral sex on him before murdering him. I didn’t know much of anything about Nick Cave until my supervisor wrote a book chapter about his work earlier this year, and listening to All The Nick Cave became one of my research tasks (too spooky for me; listening to Nick Cave albums late at night was a good way to end up convinced there were serial killers hiding in my back yard). While plenty of Cave’s songs emphasize male violence, they mostly feature violence against women. “Stagger Lee” is an odd song out, and I was left wondering why the thing that ultimate badasses are made of is sexual desire for other men.
And here I am again, wondering the same thing about the villain in Cave’s new screenplay, Lawless. An adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest County in the World, a “true” story of the author’s own grandfather’s and uncles’ bootlegging operation during prohibition in the US South, Lawless follows the heroes’ struggle against corrupt lawmakers. Guy Pearce plays Special Agent Rakes, a cop turned extortionist, who comes to the backwoods community from the big city, on behalf of a similarly corrupt politician. This outsider wages a campaign of violent terror against the community’s bootleggers, and in particular against the Bondurant family, who refuse to give him a cut of their profits.
The film is brutally and straightforwardly violent, much like Cave’s last screenplay, The Proposition. There are more than a few fight scenes, complete with brass knuckles, broken teeth and blood oozing from characters’ mouths. The flesh-on-flesh impacts are played extra loud, for cringeworthy effect. The film’s heroes are surrounded by a legend that they’re immortal, which they test by getting themselves repeatedly blugeoned, stabbed, and shot, with every detail drawn out for the audience’s pleasure. The movie’s only sex scene, unfortunately, is not shown. I guess heroes are for kicking ass, not cunnilingus.
While the Bondurants carry out a few murders and at least one very bloody castration, most of the violence is orchestrated by Special Agent Rakes, who we are to understand is Very Evil. And this is where the movie gets weird.
Cave adapts Bondurant’s villain, described in a Guardian promo piece as a “redneck country cop,” to what he claims is a more “memorable” role. The change was made to get actor Guy Pearce, who is more than convincingly creepy in the role, on board. Cave’s Rakes is an urban dandy: affected, flamboyant, dressed to the nines, and very emotional. (In the Guardian interview, Cave said he made Rakes more like himself.) Rakes is established as a deviant in two interactions with women.
First, he recognizes one of the heroes’ love interests, Maggie, as a stripper who fled the city for a quieter life in the country. He calls her out at a hotel where they are both staying, holding her door open with his foot as she tries to escape into her room. She tells him to leave her alone and he replies “don’t worry about me; I don’t want to drink from a greasy cup.” It’s a great line, but it’s also a weird scene, since it comes only after Rakes is made as obviously and pointedly sexually threatening as possible. Now he’s a threat, but he’s not sexually interested in the beautiful woman.
Later, Rakes is shown in his own room, dressed even more lavishly than usual. As he opens his door to find the giftwrapped testicles of one of his minions, we see a black woman, a prostitute, sitting on newspaper on the neatly made bed. There is no dialogue between them, but she’s crying. He has obviously done something awful to her — and something awfully deviant, since they don’t appear to have used the bed for fucking. Rakes has been shown enjoying causing pain in a few other scenes, so we presume him to be a sexual sadist. Can he get any more evil?
Well, then there’s the boy he kills. Cricket, physically disabled friend to the heroes, is their employee and engineering mastermind, doing everything from building the distillery to amking their cars go faster. As far as this movie goes, he’s as innocent as you can get. So, naturally, Rakes kills him.
What the film shows is Rakes leading Cricket into the woods, finally pushing him through a dark doorway into an abandoned building. Rakes is about as nice as he gets in the film, questioning Cricket about why one of the other men called him a “nance.” Rakes stands behind Cricket, choking him and covering his mouth, repeating “he called me a nance” before finally snapping the boy’s neck with his bare hands. “I’m not a nance,” he says.
This scene marks a turning point in the community: the sherrif, who has been coerced to work on Rakes’ side, tries to make up with the Bondurants. In two separate scenes, he explains that Cricket’s death is over the line: “What he done to that boy” is “beyond forgiveness” and “there’s no absolution.”
Nobody says the boy was raped before he was killed. In fact, for a movie that gleefully shows scene after scene of bloody violence, the actual depiction of Cricket’s death is surprisingly peaceful; his neck snaps, they have a funeral, and that’s that. While most of the movie’s shock value is in the horrors they do shown, this is about what they don’t show, and apparently can’t even say.
The other, acknowledged rape in the story also isn’t shown. When two of Rakes’ henchmen rape Maggie, we are shown her bruises afterwards to confirm that the assault has taken place. Even when her love interest, headed out for revenge, questions her about it, she denies that anything has happened, repeating “they didn’t do nothing to me.” While Maggie’s rape is made undeniable to the audience, rape is the atrocity the film leverages, but never attempts to represent.
On the surface, Lawless was a decent action flick, packed with plenty of gore, shooting and suspense, and driven by a decent “Robin Hood” plot. But it’s also a homophobic fantasy about a community of white rural men who need to band together to protect themselves when an urban queer shows up in their midst, and threatens their economy, their values, and their family. The queer is the threat — a powerful physical and sexual threat — to the normatively masculine men, not the other way around. It’s the stuff “gay panic” is made of. Only when Rakes has been killed (overkilled) can the brothers — including the one who has not had a love interest at any point throughout the film — marry their sweethearts and spawn buckets of little children.
In LTST605, we read a critical edition of Heart of Darkness in which much of the debate centred around whether Joseph Conrad was really racist in his representations of characters of colour, or whether he was reproducing Victorian ideology about race in order to subject it to critique. I might ask myself the same question about this movie: is Cave just a homophobic writer? Or is he leveraging homophobia in a way that accurately captures the homophobia in American cultural mythmaking? (And does it matter that the film valorizes, if not confirms, other myths of masculinity, like the heroes’ invincibility? Or that Cave claims to identify with the villain?)
I’ve been copying blog posts from my school blog to populate this new one without copying comments because most of the posts weren’t public, so commentators had an expectation that their comments would stay within the school community. But this time the post was public, and I think my supervisor, Mark’s, comment adds a lot to this analysis:
One possible way to interpret (if not decisively decode) the gender and sexual ambiguities of the character played by Pearce here is to read it in the context of other roles he has played. In performance studies, the ability of an actor playing a given role to quote or otherwise evoke prior roles in other productions is a phenomenon called “ghosting.” For instance, in my Battlestar Galactica article I discuss how the Commander character played by Edward James Olmos ironically “ghosts” his previous role in Blade Runner: the irony obtains in the fact that both characters, in the course of their respective productions’ plots, become suspected of being not human but androids, or “replicants.” Part of the irony then is how the recurrence of the same actor in these successive roles enacts a repetition that augments each role’s suspicion of being a replicant, a copy.
I’m not thoroughly acquainted with all Pearce’s prior roles, but two that occur to me in the context of your analysis are those which he played for Cave’s prior screenplay, Charlie Burns in The Proposition, and for a much earlier film: Felicia Jollygoodfellow in Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994). He also played a role in LA Confidential (1997), a movie that, I dimly recall, involved homosocial and gay themes, though I think these were concentrated in the Kevin Spacey character. Then again, in The Road (2009), Pearce plays a folksy family man – you know, the kind defined by not being a cannibal.
This is a reproduction of a post from September 9th 2012 on my blog at https://landing.athabascau.ca/profile/sarahma108