Framing, Sound Design, Tension, and Release in Lawless

John Hillcoat's 2012 film Lawless creates tension for the audience in the final scene while supplying the release of that tension in the same scene. Hillcoat achieves this by framing the shots a certain way and using sound design in order to emphasis the tension that exists between the characters.

Sound Design

One of the great things about this scene is that you can listen to (without watching) and feel the same tension and release through Hillcoat's decisions with his use of diagetic and non-diagetic sound. First, the score ramps up right before Jack (Shia LaBeouf) enters the bridge. I'm not sure what exact instruments are used but the way they speed up and screech to a halt let the audience know that something big is going to happen.

When the score almost completely disappears, the sound of Jack and Charlie's (Guy Pierce) footsteps are all we can hear. They are out of rhythm with each other and each step creates an uncomfortable aural sensation for the audience. The gun shots that occur break the audience out of that feeling thus giving them a release. This is continued through the sound of, Jack's brother, Howard (Jason Clarke) sticking his knife in Charlie's back. Aurally, we go back to that uncomfortable sensation through Charlie's staggered breathing until it finally ends giving us our release of the tension that built a minute before.

Framing and Visuals

The other great thing about thing about this scene is that you can also watch it on mute and still get that feeling of tension. The way Jack staggers and enters the bridge and how Hillcoat decides to shoot the characters in complete darkness. All of the characters involved in the scene become silhouettes and even when we cut back to Jack we can see his brother enter the bridge for a second, foreshadowing the end of the sequence.

By putting his characters in darkness during this scene, Hillcoat takes the emphasis of the scene away from the violence that's occurring within the scene and puts it on the tension/release within the characters involved. While they're still on the bridge, Jack becomes the only character we can see and it's important that this reveal happens after he pulls the trigger. Visually, Hillcoat makes Jack the most important character in the scene. It implies that he's the character who held the most tension and got the most out of its release.

Lawless is a vibrant film and scenes like this one showcase that fact.

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