Director John Hillcoat and musician turned screenwriter Nick Cave have been responsible for two of the most stylish examinations of existential dread in recent times with The Proposition and The Road. Where those films may have been deliberately paced and more concerned with the creeping darkness in wide open devastated landscapes than visceral fireworks, Lawless is a decidedly different beast and something of a mixed blessing all round.
The film takes place in the depression during prohibition and follows the fortunes of the Bondurant family who bootleg and run moonshine in and out of the county much to the chagrin of the law who are usually in on it somehow anyway. The team are run by Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) who is the calm centre and who legend claims is immortal. His older brother Howard (Jason Clarke) is a hot-headed drunk and his younger brother Jack (Shia LeBeouf) wants to make a name for himself but isn’t yet ready and lacks courage.
Nevertheless the brothers have a pretty good scam going until Agent Charlie Rakes, an effeminate psychopath, comes into town. When the brothers refuse the increase in pay off money, Rakes makes life as difficult as possible for the Bondurants leading to an ever escalating cycle of violence. Jack also complicates things further by going into business with renowned mob enforcer Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) and starting a relationship with preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and Forrest grows closer to fleeing showgirl Maggie (Jessica Chastain).
On the surface and apart from a silly retitling from The Wettest County in the World, Lawless has everything going for it. Hot young actors and actresses doing their best period hillbilly impressions and some startling violence as well as an acclaimed writer and director team. For all the best intentions in the world though, the film doesn’t quite work. The main problem is that despite being two hours long the film feels oddly incomplete.
Take for instance Gary Oldman’s character, he gets about three scenes, one to make an impression and the other two to really be there to allow Shia LeBeouf’s character some development. He serves no other purpose than this and it’s puzzling why an actor such as Oldman would take such a minor role. Was there more footage shot with him that’s been left on the cutting room floor? It definitely feels that way. Despite this Oldman’s performance is a lot of fun and it’s good to see him playing a villain again.
There also seems to be a lot missing from the scenes that traditionally establish the characters and their situation. Before you know what’s happened, the brothers have turned down a deal with Guy Pearce’s cartoon baddie and they are at war. Tom Hardy does his thing again where he mumbles through most of the film but does so looking cool whilst wearing a cardigan so it’s a pass for him this time but I suspect that this type of performance isn’t going to be enough to justify the hype for long. Ironically the one who most of the potential audience might be sick of; Shia LeBeouf comes out of this the best. People forget that before Transformers and Indiana Jones, LeBeouf was a solid dramatic actor who really established his credentials with A Guide to Recognising Your Saints (ditto Channing Tatum).
This is something of a step up and back for LeBeouf and if he really is done with the big blockbusters in favour of more roles like this I’m all for it. His character here starts off as the young upstart familiar to millions but rapidly becomes more beaten down and brutal like a dog that’s had too much abuse and is snarling trying to get off his leash. The support cast also come across very well with minor roles they make the most of especially Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke as a violent drunken brute and Dane DeHaan as the crippled cousin of the brothers who is valued behind the scenes as much as the brothers themselves.
Apart from one moment where a Granddaddy song is used to underscore a tragic, brutal crime that occurs one night, most of the style of Hillcoat’s previous efforts is absent. Lawless really does feel like an overwhelmingly commercial effort to grab awards glory and get bums on seats by a talent that’s been diluted. For a great deal of the running time Lawless feels conventional and functionary when it should have been aiming higher. It’s thrilling in all the right ways but you can’t help thinking it could and should have been so much more.