Starring: Shia Lebouf, Tom Hardy, and Guy Pearce
Directed by John Hillcoat
Lawless is lucky that no one else is nearly as interested in showing audiences what the prohibition-era south was like, because much of the mileage that this film gets is from showing us a gritty, in depth look at a world that few people have really seen. It makes me pine for the major flaws in the rest of the film, because what echoes throughout is something that was decent, but could have been a masterpiece with just a bit of tinkering.
Lawless tells the true story of the three Bondurant brothers, Virginia moon shiners in an era where the government has decided to make alcohol illegal. The youngest is Jack (Shia Lebeouf), preceded by Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke). Living in what's known as the "The Wettest County in the World", their liquor is considered a staple of the community. Even the local sheriff is a frequent customer. When a brutal state deputy (Guy Pearce) shows up in Franklin County to shake it all up, however, one side is going to die a bloody death.
It's a simple plot, but the film doesn't seem to realize it. The thing is, a lot more seems to "go on" inside this movie than is good for it. We get the fight between the brothers and the deputy, sure but we also get small forays into their love lives and a bafflingly minor subplot involving a big shot ganster played by Gary Oldman. That's the last I'll mention of him, because he's barely in the movie.
The problem is that so much of what happens doesn't really move the plot forward, and as a result much of the film feels slow. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska play the love interests of Forrest and Jack, but neither of the love stories manage to feel anything but shoveled in and obligatory. They aren't particularly bad (Wasikowska is always a joy to watch), but the pacing would have been much better if they had been removed.
That aside, there is a great deal of good in the whole thing. Shia LaBeouf basically plays himself as the youngest brother. That may not sound like a good thing, but it reveals the screenplay's strength in knowing how to use the actors. Yes, Shia acts arrogant and whiny, but this time around the movie actually realizes it. The closest thing we get to a character arc is seeing Jack get over the things that make him so annoying and, to put it simply, growing a pair. This is really the first time a film has managed to properly utilize LaBeouf's...er...particular skill set.
Tom Hardy is, unsurprisingly, the highlight of the film as Forrest, the silent, seemingly un-killable leader of the group. In an environment dominated by red necks and hicks, Hardy plays his character as a guy who probably could have been a wealthy businessman if he had been raised in a different place. Sure, he speaks in the same gruff accent and wears the same simple clothes, but he seems like the one person living in Franklin County who is smarter then he looks. Though, he does seem to lack some interpersonal skills. He's easily the most intriguing character of the bunch.
The last brother, Howard, is pretty much written and acted as a blank slate. I'll take two out of three as a success, though.
Guy Pearce almost feels like he stepped out of a different, much weirder movie as State Deputy Rakes. He's cartoonishly pompous, complete with shaved eyebrows and a haircut with a middle part so wide it may as well be a reverse mohawk. He'll jump from bland and snooty to absolutely batshit crazy in seconds, making me wonder if the part was originally written for Nicolas Cage. This film hinges on its villain, so this could have easily made the whole thing sink. But maybe it's because everything else feels so authentic. Maybe it's because Pearce has so much charisma but he actually works. In fact, it's where we see the clashing between him and the Bondurant brothers where the film really blasts forward.
Blasts really is the best word I could choose. When see the two forces I found interesting battle for control of Franklin County, through shootouts and torturing and all that brutal stuff, I was on the edge of my seat. It's just a shame that this isn't nearly as much of the movie as it shoud have.
Lawless is a good crime drama that, with just a little script tightening, could have been something we'd remember for years. It's worth seeing if your into that kind of thing.