Director John Hillcoat (The Road) returns to the unforgiving world of Hollywood with a prohibition-era crime drama titled Lawless, which features the likes of Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain and Guy Pearce. Hillcoat’s Lawless is a well-oiled machine of a film that benefits from Nick Cave‘s script (and music with frequent co-collaborator Warren Ellis) and the showy performances by the impressive ensemble cast that he managed to round up. What makes Lawless better than Hillcoat’s other projects are its violent spirit and general funny nature that might strike some as odd. Yet underneath all of the compliments Lawless remains a picture that is enjoyable to an extent, but something that never quite achieves perfection.
The Depression has sunk its teeth into Franklin County and the rest of the country, leaving desperate people with opportunities. The Bondurant Brothers take advantage of these harsh times by starting up their own little alcohol business. They’re the most notorious bootleggers of the land and that is because of their reputation as a trio. The eldest brother Howard (Jason Clarke) is a beast of a man that doesn’t mind sipping back on their own recipe from time to time, which usually results in fist fights galore and a short temper that isn’t to be poked at.
His younger brother Forrest (Tom Hardy) is equally powerful, but much more fearful in the eyes of the rest of the world. He just won’t die, which makes him dangerous and unpredictable. He acts as the brains of the operation and the one that calls most of the shots, which leaves their youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) with nothing more to do then to drive the car and sweep up the floors.
Jack is hungry for a piece of the action, so he naturally goes against his brothers’ orders in a time that calls for sticking together, because Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) has taken over the town’s law and most of the other bootleggers. Charlie wants the Bondurant Bros. to play ball and let him and his higher ups in on a piece of the action, but Forrest doesn’t like that idea very much, so he kindly tells Charlie to stick it.
This leads to a feud between Charlie and his gang of officers against Forrest, Jack, Howard and whoever else is bold enough to take a stand and not go down without a fight. Lawless is a story of brotherhood and honor in a time where honor and code goes out the window in exchange for cheap liquor and easy money.
John Hillcoat takes on the material written by an actual Bondurant (and Nick Cave) with an incredible understanding of how to successfully make a period piece that blends together strong, but damaged characters with ripe scenery and old-timey music that helps authentically recreate the moonshine-fueled times of the past. Hillcoat’s most known for his work adapting Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, but he also did a small western called The Proposition, which shares lots of similarities with Lawless.
Lawless is proof that Hillcoat is getting better at pacing his films. He likes to take his time chewing on the characters and really fattening them up for something big and Lawless is a shining example of why a good simmer is sometimes a great thing. The Road might have been a bit of a drag at times, but Lawless almost always feels energetic and bustling. The trio of leads are established quickly and given enough to do for the opening minutes and then the film’s dilemma gets tossed in by way of Guy Pearce.
Pearce plays up the role with a heavy accent and a greasy appearance that will make you want to vomit, but it’s effective. I wish the same could be said about Gary Oldman, but his brief bad-boy persona is more of an afterthought that goes as fast as it comes.
The brothers all share an equal amount of screen presence, with Shia’s character coming on a little forcefully and Tom Hardy‘s leaving the best impression. Jason Clarke is the underdog of the trio, but his Howard is strong and rugged and exactly the type of brother you’d want in your corner when the going gets tough. Clarke never flat-out steals a scene, but he makes his moments count.
Tom Hardy continues his career that’s full of dominating performances like Warrior and The Dark Knight Rises. His role here isn’t nearly as physical as it is mental and emotional. Forrest is stuck in the old-times and adapting and evolving isn’t something he cares much about. His brother Jack is showing maturity as he crosses from boyhood into manhood, but Forrest isn’t ready to accept that change just yet. He likes being in control and when he feels that rope snapping he backs up into a corner and comes out with guns blazing and fists swinging.
Hardy is actually a lot of fun as Forrest and not just someone that wants to punch your face in. His mixture of posture and dialogue delivery makes for a funny role that strikes you with laughs just as much as it strikes you with bloodied fists and broken bottles.
Shia LaBeouf plays in his most mature role yet and he does so with the skills that a soon-to-be great actor would have. He’s breaking out of his shell for sure, but he’s not there just yet in terms of being on the same level as Clarke and Hardy. I’ve been waiting for LaBeouf to make a career choice like this and I’m glad to know that he can act with the big boys outside of Michael Bay‘s Transformers trilogy. LaBeouf’s role is that of an eager young snot-nose kid and how that snot-nose kid becomes a proper member of the Bondurant family. Shia understands the importance of that transformation, but it still lays itself on a little on the heavy side.
It would be wrong to review the film without leaving out such a key performance like Jessica Chastain‘s. Her Maggie is the innocent bystander that gets caught up between a full-fledged war between her future and past. Chastain doesn’t give Maggie that much of a back story, but she does help hone in on the emotional side of the film. She connects well with Hardy and LaBeouf and even more with Peace, which helps add a little more depth to the characters whenever they’re not trying to kill each other. Chastain is excellent in these types of supporting roles that end up getting more attention than a main role and I’m glad to see her getting fully utilized in a Hillcoat picture that is already full of so much talent.
I’ve spent so much time going into such great detail with the characters and not so much on the actual film itself and that is where my main gripe with Lawless comes into play. It’s an old-fashioned barroom brawlin’ type of flick that will please the western fans and probably grab the attention of those just looking for a violent period piece. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis compose yet another masterful score for John Hillcoat, who seems to be on the ball when it comes to delivering a strong character drama with colorful scenery. But underneath all of that impressive work is just a film that exists. Lawless strongly exists and it’s easily something I’d recommend, but it doesn’t leave a lasting impact that sits with you or something that warrants too much praise.
It gets the job done. It does a better job in some key areas (like acting and general character work), but it never feels like something that will eventually make that list of “best crime dramas” or “best prohibition-era films”. Maybe it simply needs multiple viewings or some time to age properly, like a good drink, or maybe it’s just a strong Hillcoat film with considerable performances and a solid script that feels a little too light and surface-level for my tastes.
Lawless – 8/10