Film Review – Lawless
Somewhere inside of John Hillcoat’s Lawless (2012) is a good movie, maybe even a great one. The ingredients are there: good acting, fine direction, impressive production values – everything you could ask for. Nick Cave wrote the screenplay and helped compose the music, and the story is based on true-life events (as depicted in Matt Bondurant’s novel, The Wettest County in the World); this should have been an easy slam-dunk. Bootlegging criminals running around during The Great Depression? That premise alone could make for some good, intense drama. Add to that a cast of promising young actors combined with well-established veterans, and you have the makings for something really great. But some critical missteps prevent this from truly living up to its potential. Which is why I am disappointed – with so many talented people at work, this should have been a much better film.
Franklin County, Virginia is the setting of our story. We are introduced to the Bondurant boys, Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Jack (Shia LaBeouf). During the Prohibition Era, the Bondurants make their living by operating and producing their own moonshine business. They make their alcohol deep in the hillside, sell it to the people, pay off the local authorities, and go on their merry way. No fuss is made, no innocent people are hurt, and they never draw attention from the big boys in the city. That is until the sinister Special Deputy Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce) comes snooping around. When he and his people learn of the Bondurant’s operation, Rakes demands a bigger piece of their profits for himself. Well, the Bondurants (especially Forrest, the leader of the group) would much rather see bullets than give more of their hard earned money to a guy like Rakes. That, not surprisingly, leads to some heated (and violent) encounters.
Hillcoat has an impressive cast overall to work with. Tom Hardy is – as he has been for a while now – a standout. He plays Forrest as part criminal, part family-centered leader, and part legend. Forrest doesn’t roll over for anyone; he won’t let crooked officers change the way he does things, even if it means putting himself in danger. With a slight squint and perfectly timed grunt, Hardy is both intimidating and hilarious. He is perfectly matched up with Guy Pearce, who is also memorable as the resident villain. Pearce chews up the scenery with his quirky, borderline OCD mannerisms as Rakes. He wants a slice of the pie and is willing to go to any measures to do it, as long as it doesn’t dirty his three-piece suits or ruin a hair on his finely slicked head. Both actors seem to be having the most fun with their roles, and as a result their performances are the most compelling.
It’s when we see the other characters that things start to go wrong, and this is mostly because they are played by actors who deserve to be in much more substantial roles. Take for instance Maggie Beauford, played by Jessica Chastain. Chastain is a talented actress and has played pivotal parts in films like The Tree of Life (2011) and Take Shelter (2011). Unfortunately, her character here is relegated to being “the girlfriend.” All we learn of Maggie is that she was once a performer in the city, moved away to find some peace and quiet, and now works simply as the love interest to Forrest. An even larger missed opportunity is gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). Banner is a well-known and dangerous criminal who kills anybody that stands in his way. Gary Oldman once again shows that he is one of the most underrated actors of his generation. In only two scenes, Oldman provides a bigger impact than anyone else, and yet the actor who provides the largest spark disappears just as the plot really begins to develop.
There is one glaring issue, and it is with the main character. I don’t necessarily have a problem with Shia LaBeouf; as an actor, he is fine. But he is clearly overshadowed by just about everybody else. His lack of screen presence compared to Hardy/Pearce/Chastain/Oldman is easily noticeable. Whenever he is sharing a scene, he seems to be pushed into the background. It also doesn’t help that his character is written as the least interesting as well. The side story of Jack attempting to court the preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) feels forced, and is mostly played for comedic purposes. Even worse, Jack’s actions and decisions range from mildly unwise to plain idiotic. I understand what the filmmakers are attempting: to show Jack grow and truly take the steps necessary to become a part of the family business, but his development plays out very roughly. Some of Jack’s decisions lead directly to dire consequences, putting his family on very dangerous ground. I often thought, “Why are Forrest and Howard letting Jack get away with this?” Unfortunately that’s never answered. It’s tough to sympathize with a character whose dumb choices are what cause all the problems to begin with, and this lack of sympathy very nearly ruins the entire movie.
I liked Lawless (2012) to a certain degree, but it didn’t turn out as well as it should have. I appreciated the world they created: it looked like a place that actually existed. But alas, a good-looking surface is not enough when the plotting and tone are uneven. What could have been a memorable crime movie turned out to be a generic and forgettable genre piece. On paper, this sounded like a sure thing. Too bad what ended up on screen didn’t translate very well.
Final Grade: B-