Rating: R (language, some sexuality and nudity, and strong bloody violence)
Length: 116 minutes
Release Date: August 29, 2012
Directed by: John Hillcoat
Stars: 4 out of 5
“Lawless” is one-part gangster film, one-part crime-family drama, and one-part western. This combination produces an engrossing tale with fine performances that genre fans will love, and it also creates a film dominated by shootouts and over-the-top violence.
Based on the novel The Wettest County in the World, “Lawless” is the story of three brothers who turn to the moonshine trade to make a living in Depression-era Franklin County, Virginia. The youngest brother, Jack Bondurant (Shia LeBeouf), seems desperate for a chance to prove himself to his two older brothers. The chance quickly arrives when Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a federal agent from Chicago, decides to eliminate the Bondurant family. Also creating trouble for the Bondurant brothers is Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), a mobster who uses a Tommy gun to solve disagreements.
Shia LeBeouf’s Jack Bondurant has the most opportunity for growth in this film, but the character often seems arrogant, rather than confident, as “Lawless” progresses. While the plot calls for the character to evolve, Jack never seems to develop a sense of self. This is particularly problematic, because Jack Bondurant narrates the film. Even a romantic subplot with “Jane Eyre”s Mia Wasikowska doesn’t give the audience enough reason to root for Jack Bondurant.
A more interesting character is Forrest Bondurant, who is played with an understated ruthlessness by Tom Hardy. Hardy, who wears cardigans for most of the film, is both wise and unflinching while defending and managing the family business. He also has a romantic interest with a mysterious woman from Chicago named Maggie (Jessica Chastain). Chastain also makes the most of her screen time, but, like Wasikowska, her character seems like an afterthought in the overall narrative arc. Also experiencing a lack of narrative arc is Jason Clarke, who plays the eldest Bondurant brother.
The movie’s main villain, Charlie Rakes, is played as a sadistic dandy by veteran actor Guy Pearce. With his hair slicked back and immaculate dress gloves at the ready, Pearce makes a satisfyingly immoral character. His carefully curated appearance also helpfully provides a bit of contrast; most of the other characters seem covered in a fine mist of dust and, later, blood.
Gary Oldman also gives a brief and slightly unrealistic performance. However, most of the film relies on the idea that the Bondurant brothers should triumph because of the greater flaws of their adversaries. When viewed in this light, Oldman delivers.
Director John Hillcoat, who also directed 2005’s “The Proposition,” is in full command of this film. With the exception of LeBeouf, he’s able to elicit fine performances from all of the actors. Hillcoat also creates a credible-looking Prohibition-era Virginia that is still elastic enough to allow for Pearce’s high-stylized performance. However, “Lawless” is never as successful as “The Proposition,” which was regarded by many critics as one of the finest films in 2005. “The Proposition” was a character-driven film, while the script of “Lawless” seems to force the characters into the situations the plot demands.
For this reason, while most of the performances are compelling and the direction is excellent, the script is less beguiling. Written by Nick Cave, the actual plot structure holds together well, but many of the characters are fuzzy archetypes. Another large problem is that Cave does not provide a compelling reason for the audience to care about the characters in the film. While the film implies that the audience should be sympathetic to the Bondurant brothers, there is no compelling reason for the audience to do so. The Bondurant brothers may be breaking what modern filmgoers recognize as an unjust law, but they also conduct their business like Depression-era thugs. There’s no doubt that Cave follows the facts in this adapted-from-real-life story, but there’s no real analysis in the script of what the film is portraying.
Although many films do not have characters to cheer for, as the body count in “Lawless” rises, it becomes harder and harder to care who wins the final showdown. In a less violent film, it’s possible for this aspect of the script to be less problematic. However, Cave seems to believe that audiences who approve of breaking the Volstead Act will also justify the acts of violence that accompany the moonshine business. This gamble doesn’t work. Instead, audiences must care about the narrator and his brothers solely because he narrates the film.
Exceptional acting and direction makes “Lawless” a cut above many gangster flicks, but audiences can be forgiven for questioning the point of this well-crafted film. However, those interested in spending two hours watching some of the best talent in Hollywood through a hail of gunfire will be satisfied.