Subtitles. Lots of them. In 1930’s Virginia, the Bondurant brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) run things in Franklin County. They make a living running a bootleg moonshine operation during the Prohibition era. They are outlaws, living by their own rules, but not really going out of their way to make trouble. So, they’re your honorable outlaws.
Everyone wants a cut though. And the person who wants it is Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a slimy new deputy from Chicago who has no fear in going up against the “indestructible” Bondurant boys. What results is a clash between the clan and the corrupt law, and there’s only one way it will end: In tons of bloodshed.
Lawless is straightforward. And yet, if someone asked me what the film is about, I would honestly probably struggle with giving a summary. That’s because the storytelling isn’t the real draw or strong point, but the overall world and locale is. What Lawless lacks in narrative, it makes up for in production.
With a limited feature filmography, director John Hillcoat (The Road, The Proposition) has proven that he’s really adept at creating worlds in his films. Whether it be a traditional western setting, a post-apocalyptic wasteland, or a 1930’s boonie town, all of these worlds are fully realized and immerse audiences with their legitimacy. Though it has a pseudo-western feel, and certainly the ol’ gunslinging and ruthless violence of that genre, it’s not a western. It’s a crime movie set in the prohibition era, an era that isn’t depicted all that often in cinema. Along with a superb soundtrack, it makes Lawless a pretty fresh viewing experience, all things considered.
But the production solely doesn’t make up a movie, and it is other areas where Lawless could have used a little more precision. As stated, Hillcott’s piece—storywise—is pretty straightforward. No twists or random occurrences, etc. Everything is pretty much set up as is with no extra meaning, which is completely fine. However, while there isn’t a lot going on per se, there is a feeling that yours truly had when watching in which I wasn’t really sure in what the goal was. For as much as the movie is perfectly content in being a violent but beautiful romp through the Virginia backwoods, a few moments exist in which emotionally, there is nothing of value. These moments are introduced just enough to dull the blade that Lawless carries.
This is where the struggle to give a summary part comes into play. In my opinion, one could argue that Lawless is as much of a coming of age story/romance as it is a gritty Wild West—err—Deep South revenge story. If those parts worked, Hillcoat may have had a perfect film, possibly even an Oscar one. Alas, it just isn’t meant to be.
But, when a cast featuring Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Guy Pearce, Dane DeHann, and even Shia LaBeuof is assembled, disappointment with the script can’t completely mar what they bring to the table. Beware…there is a little bait and switch with LaBeuof and Hardy, and also with Gary Oldman, who appears for a memorable but shocking maximum of five minutes. While he still will likely never shed his kid role as Louis Stevens, Shia does turn in strong work here. His love story with Wasikowska’s character is hardly believable, and the two just feel forced together because there needs to be a love angle. But, he does well with most everything else; it just takes a little time to realize that this is his character’s story first and foremost.
Is there a more physical actor than Tom Hardy? That doesn’t mean that he’s throwing haymakers like Mike Tyson, but it does mean that he is entirely believable as the toughest guy in the room. Screen presence can be had in a multitude of ways, and Hardy has it not just in skill but in physicality. Like LaBeouf’s character however, his character’s romance with another female in the form of Jessica Chastain comes off as uninspired (Chastain and Wasikowska don’t really do anything). He’s great…just make sure to turn on the subtitles. I may have been really frustrated if I viewed this first in theaters. As for the others, Jason Clarke is less developed, but still delivers, even when he just grunts his way through his dialogue. Guy Pearce’s performance may be polarizing to some, I personally believe his detestable villain role is outstanding. Not to mention probably needed to fully draw the audience to the brother’s side.
Like most strong moonshines, Lawless doesn’t always leave a great feeling behind. But typically. if someone’s drinking moonshine, I imagine they’re doing it for a specific reason (getting drunk fast). Same with Lawless. When yours truly is in the mood for a 1930’s period piece, this does the job well enough.
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