Film Review: “Lawless”

by Jason LeRoy on August 29, 2012

Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain in LAWLESS

starring: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke

written by: Nick Cave

directed by: John Hillcoat

MPAA: Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity

After previously collaborating on 2005’s The Proposition, director John Hillcoat and singer-turned-screenwriter Nick Cave have reunited to tell yet another darkly brutal Western-style story, Lawless. And while they certainly retain their relish for the rough-hewn outlaw core of this material, this time there’s an obstacle they can’t quite overcome. While The Proposition was an original screenplay, Lawless is Cave’s adaptation of The Wettest County in the World, Matt Bondurant’s fictionalized novel about his great-uncle, Forrest Bondurant, and the family myths surrounding his life as a Prohibition-era bootlegger. This is Cave’s first attempt at adapting a novel, and it shows. Despite the strength of its filmmaking and performances, Lawless suffers from Cave’s overly ambitious and ill-advised attempt to capture and translate far too much of the source material.

Lawless is the story of the brothers Bondurant — invincible leader Forrest (Tom Hardy), timid Jack (Shia LaBeouf), and the other one, Howard (Jason Clarke). The Bondurants are Prohibition-era moonshiners in Virginia’s Franklin County, known as “the wettest county in the world” (which used to be the title of this film, but was presumably changed due to the inability of deviants such as myself to say the word “wet” with giggling or grimacing). Franklin County is known for its prodigious export of moonshine, which is greatly relied upon by the Mob-run speakeasies of Chicago. But when the uneasy peace between the mobsters and the bribe-taking cops in Chicago begins to disintegrate, a war breaks out that gradually trickles down to Franklin County.

The Bondurants suddenly find themselves contending with ruthless Special Deputy Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce), down from the Windy City to start skimming their profits. Also, they have to contend with local competition trying to dismantle their moonshine monopoly. Also, there’s Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a mysterious ex-dancer who comes down from the city and negotiates her way into a job as the bartender at the Bondurants’ saloon. Also, there’s Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), a preacher’s daughter that Jack wants to impress. Also, there’s Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), a big-time Chicago gangster who wants to do business with the boys. And there’s Jack’s friend Cricket, and there’s the local Virginia cops, and there’s not really a chance I’ll be able to distill this many-tentacled cephalopod of a plot into a neat summary.

At least Hillcoat and Cave have assembled an impressive cast to portray their small army of characters. Tom Hardy is slightly more intelligible than in The Dark Knight Rises, and also reminds us how much nicer it is to see his pillowy lips face while he’s acting. This is yet another tough and intimidating character from him, but it’s a type he plays quite well. LaBeouf gives one of his strongest and most fully-realized performances as Jack. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are somewhat wasted in roles that boil down to Love Interest 1 and 2; Chastain even appears nude in a somewhat gratuitous and unnecessary scene, which is unfortunate given the prestige she’s accumulated over the last year.

Guy Pearce continues his 2012 Unrecognizability Tour (after Prometheus) as the despicable Rakes, for which he has inexplicably been styled with shaved eyebrows and a freakishly wide middle-part. I find it tiresome when villains are given grotesque physical cues to signify their badness, but Pearce still nails it. Gary Oldman has a ball in his handful of scenes as a powerful Chicago gangster. It should also be noted that Cave and Warren Ellis have assembled a peach of a soundtrack, featuring vocals from Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Ralph Stanley, and Mark Lanegan.

Lawless can’t decide whether it’s a rustic family epic, an old-time gangster movie, or an Appalachian folk ballad. It veers and careens inconsistently between each, struggling to unify its many characters and subplots in a cohesive way. Its focus and tone shift too frequently for the audience to really connect with any particular thread, and it lacks the nimbleness and conviction of a true ensemble piece; this is basically an ensemble film that doggedly insists it has only a few characters. By the conclusion, you have the distinct sensation that you’ve just watched two or three films crammed disjointedly into one. And while there are moments of bracing effectiveness and nothing genuinely bad about it, the sum amounts to less than the parts.

Lawless opens in the Bay Area today.

Read Also:

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: