Lawless has all the ingredients to be a pretty entertaining movie by my standards: a bunch of actors I like, based on a true story, gangsters and violence. However, it failed to hold my attention throughout the movie; a meandering story and some too over the top characters failed to fully engage me. There are some solid performances here, but mayhem can’t cover up the flaws in the plotting. Lawless commits the biggest sin of them all: it was boring.
Set in the 1930s, Lawless tells the tale of three bootlegging brothers in Franklin County Virginia: Forrest (Tom Hardy), the stoic leader of the group; Howard (Jason Clarke), the enforcer; and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the runt of the group who serves primarily as their driver, but wants to do more. When Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) rolls into town demanding a cut of the profits from all the bootleggers in the county, the Bondurant brothers are the only ones to refuse to give in to the intimidation. Thus begins a war between the brothers and the Special Deputy, which results in a lot of bloodshed.
I’m the not the world’s biggest Shia LaBeouf fan, but he’s pretty solid as Jack. He’s given the most to do in this film, as the youngest brother tries to find his role in the family enterprise and tries to become a player in the bootlegging game, rather than a spectator. Lawless is really Jack’s journey, which is not all that surprising as the book that the film is based on (The Wettest County in the World) is written by the real Jack Bondurant’s grandson. Tom Hardy has the less showy performance and I don’t know if Forrest is a really supposed to be an emotionless guy or that’s just Hardy, but it quietly works for the most part. Jason Clarke is underutilized as Howard, the least fleshed out of the brothers. Clarke could have done a lot more if permitted.
The main issue with the film is that it doesn’t know how to get out of its own way. The central premise outlined above is enough to make an interesting film about, but whatever momentum that story has is repeatedly squashed by needless detours into less interesting subplots. Two of these subplots involve actresses that I like a lot (Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska); however, these stories are not all that developed and feel shoehorned into the rest of the movie. Perhaps they felt that there had to be some women in the film, but unfortunately these subplots serve more as a distraction more than anything else. The actresses did a good job, but their roles were unnecessary as written.
I also thought that Guy Pearce’s Special Deputy was so one note and over the top that is was just too much. You can be a charismatic bad guy – see Heath Ledger as The Joker – but there has to be balance and some subtlety. Special Agent Rakes was a bit of a straw man bad guy; he was a bunch of stereotypes and broad personality traits without a lot of substance. I didn’t need his entire back story, but a little more restraint in the performance or characterization would have been preferred. Perhaps Pearce was simply trying to liven up these proceedings; at least when he was on screen, things were interesting. It may have been a little cartoony, but I did pay more attention when he was in a scene.
Some other quick thoughts:
- The Dark Knight Rises has kind of ruined Tom Hardy for me; now every time I see him in anything, I expect to hear that weird Bane voice coming out of his mouth. Actually, the Bane voice might have livened things up. I found Hardy mumbled a lot in Lawless.
- For whatever other failings that Lawless has, the cinematography is beautiful. It’s a nice film to look at and I like the clothing from that time period. Not enough men wear hats anymore (other than ball caps).
- Fun facts: James Franco and Ryan Gosling were originally attached to play Howard and Forrest, respectively. I love both actors, but that would have been very different takes on the characters. However, we know from Gangster Squad that Gosling would have looked fabulous in the clothing.
- I’ve read a lot made of the violence of the film, which I didn’t think was really all that exaggerated. Maybe that says more about me and the movies I typically watched; your sensibilities may vary.
- The movie poster is trying to cash in on Jessica Chastain’s recent rise to stardom; her character is a supporting character and mostly in the background.
The odd choice of pacing and the constant diversions into less compelling subplots holds Lawless back and makes it an uneven movie. The actors do what they can, but ultimately this is a movie that has what could be an exciting premise that it ultimately refuses to take advantage of . The result is a film that never really takes off; there are sporadic moments of excitement, but Lawless is dull overall.