John Hillcoat aimed for Cannes gold on Saturday with Lawless, a Prohibition-era rural gangster movie scripted by rocker Nick Cave, that he says is a parable for the "failed" war on drugs.
The film by The Road director Hillcoat features Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce with Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain as love interests in a violent slice of hillbilly moonshine myth-making based on a true story from the 1930s United States.
Hillcoat told reporters after a press screening here that a major reference for him were films about the real-life gangsters Bonnie and Clyde who operated during the Great Depression when alcohol was banned.
But he and fellow Australian Cave, with whom he worked on the 2005 outback Western The Proposition, said they saw their ultra-violent new work as a commentary on modern times.
"There are a lot of parallels to today, with the economic crisis, the political crisis, the war on drugs," director Hillcoat said of his work, one of five US productions among the 22 vying for the Palme d'Or top prize on 27 May.
He said he initially planned an opening montage that showed severed heads — victims of Mexican drug cartels — rolling across a nightclub floor, then junkies in 1980s New York, "until we landed on Prohibition".
"That was the birth of serious crime... and it feeds into everything that is going on today," he said, adding that he ditched the montage idea as it proved too complicated to pull off.
Cave, a musician, author, composer and occasional actor best known as a frontman of rock band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, said he also saw links to today and sought to reflect them in the score which he co-wrote.
"Prohibition still exists today. It still fails epically, with the so-called war on drugs," he said.
"So there was a kind of gleeful idea of fusing modern day concerns such as a Velvet Underground song about taking speed and amphetamines, like White Heat, and doing it in a kind of bluegrass, authentic American style that seemed to pull the present back to the past in some kind of pleasing way," he said.
Lawless is based on Matt Bondurant's family memoir The Wettest County in the World, which Cave described as "a melancholic treaty on maleness and violence".
The film centres on three Virginia brothers who find their thriving bootlegging enterprise threatened by rivals and by corrupt law enforcement agents, and briefly features a machine-gun toting Gary Oldman as mobster Floyd Banner.
The drama, which saw its red carpet Cannes premiere on Saturday evening, got mostly positive initial reviews online after its press screening.
"After proving to be a problematic fit for the grim post-apocalyptic existentialism of The Road, director John Hillcoat is back on more fertile turf with Lawless, a muscular slice of grisly Americana rooted in flavourful Prohibition-era outlaw legend," wrote The Hollywood Reporter.
But Britain's Guardian newspaper slammed it, saying it "looks handsome but its cocktail of violence and sentimentality sticks in the throat" and argued that "the final flurry of self-adoring nostalgia is borderline-nauseating".