Movie Review: Lawless
September 7th 2012 · 0 Comments
New Prohibition-era crime drama, “Lawless,” should have been an excellent film. The film has an eminently talented director in Australia’s John Hillcoat––this generation’s answer to Sam Peckinpah––who possesses a masterful grasp of desolate locales, hardened people, and brutal violence (see 2005’s harrowing western “The Proposition,” the best––and bleakest––that genre has offered since the 1992 release of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven;” or check out his sparse, disturbing 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, “The Road”). Joining Hillcoat is his frequent collaborator, writer/musician Nick Cave (of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds fame), adapting the best-selling historical novel by Matt Bondurant, “The Wettest County in the World.” Finally, the film boasts a solid cast, featuring the likes of Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, and Jessica Chastain. Somehow, these pieces fail to fit together harmoniously, and we are left with a flawed, frustrating film that still manages to offer some utterly compelling moments.
“Lawless” chronicles the mostly-true story of the Bondurant clan and their profitable bootlegging operation in Franklin County, Virginia. Brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) run the outfit, while younger brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is stuck sweeping the family saloon. With the sheriff on the take, the operation runs smoothly, until Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Pearce) is brought in from Chicago to clean the county up. The brutal Rakes assaults Jack in order to send a message, but the laconic, uncompromising Forrest refuses to back down, stoking the conflict. Desperate to prove his worth to his big brothers and anxious to catch the eye of the preacher’s pretty daughter, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), Jack makes brash decisions that just might doom the family business. Throw in a stately former dancer running from her past (Chastain) and a mobster with an itchy trigger-finger (Oldman), and the stage is set for an explosive showdown.
One major letdown is Jack’s status as the central figure. Part of this is down to the writing, and but so to is the casting and performance of Shia LaBeouf. Jack’s character arc, from bumbling youngster to an ostensibly seasoned and responsible member of the business, never really comes to fruition. It’s hard to root for Jack. He makes flagrantly poor decisions time and again, but never seems to learn the lessons that Forrest tries to impart. LaBeouf portrays the character as uniformly whiny and unlikable for the duration. Further, despite Jack’s utter lack of evident self-reflection, the script gives him a lengthy closing voice-over that doesn’t mesh with what we’ve seen of him on-screen.
The other performances vary wildly from the bizarre to the commendable, leaving many of the frequent dialogue-heavy scenes feeling uneven and unfinished. Gary Oldman has dialogue in only one short scene. Alas, his prodigious talent seems squandered on a one-dimensional character. Guy Pearce is perhaps the most memorable as the prissy-but-savage lawman, but his unnatural and quite over-the-top performance approaches caricature. Some may brand his lurid lack of restraint as genius, but most viewers are likely to find that he pulls them out of scenes. Tom Hardy is passable in a role that seems tailor-made for his brand of gruff, wordless physicality, and relatively-unknown Jason Clarke turns in a fine, understated performance as the simple, obedient Bondurant.
Despite these significant flaws, however, the film has a subtle, insidious way of sucking in the viewer. Benoît Delhomme’s breathtaking cinematography lulls you into a false sense of security, just in time for the next violent outburst to evoke the utmost shock and dismay. The film is quite gory, even by the bloody standards of gangster movies, but it is always credible and never seems gratuitous.
Fans of gangster films like “Goodfellas” and “Casino” may find the setting of the relatively-untapped Prohibition era a bit dry, but when the film works best, hurtling as it does inexorably toward the next explosive conflict, it can be absolutely gripping. Even as a mere scrap of historical Americana, “Lawless” is worth watching––if you can stomach the brutality.