Directed by: John Hillcoat Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Mia Wasikowka Running Time: 1 hr 55 mins Rating: R Release Date: August 29, 2012
PLOT: In 1920s Virginia, three bootlegging brothers (LaBeouf, Hardy, Clarke) receive pressure from a rival gangster (Oldman) and a dirty deputy (Pearce).
WHO'S IT FOR? If you are willing to sacrifice a solid story for the mindless fun of a muscly cast list and the brutal violence they inflict on one another, then Lawless might be the simplified entertainment you're looking for. Basically, if The Expendables 2 wasn't enough, here's Lawless. With even more ladies!
EXPECTATIONS: The cast was good, the director was good (Hillcoat did the great Proposition), and even Jeff Bayer liked it at Cannes. My hopes were not unreasonably high, but I did expect some solid material out of a film featuring Hardy, Oldman, Pearce, Chastain, and even LaBeouf.
Shia LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant: Placing LaBeouf back into the shoes of a cocky whippersnapper, Jack is the kind of character who sucks the fun out of something so simple as this movie because his naivety never earns sympathy. He's an annoying dumb kid who makes dumber decisions, as caught up in the period's thug mentality, and is unfortunately saddled with the weight of two-thirds of the movie. LaBeouf is an adolescent, twitchy, and begging to be taken as a man (or a "serious actor"). Score: 5
Tom Hardy as Forrest Bondurant: With past bulky roles in Bronson, Warrior, and The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy has proven to be a double threat as a star — he can provide physical and mental strength at the same time. He recalls those roles in Lawless by his heavy exhaling, often when he is irritated, sounding like a balloon that could burst at any point. The chunk of Hardy's usage is similar to that of other actors in this film — he's oversimplified, and when he's on-screen, he doesn't have a lot to work with. He provides the movie its moments of brutal brass knuckling, and when he's taken out of commission so to speak, he's only there to present toughness on the outside. Score: 6
Guy Pearce as Charlie Rakes: In the film's hammiest performance, an unrecognizable Pearce struggles to find any dimension to this clown-y dirty cop character. The cat who slowly pounces on the Bondurants in this dull cat-and-mouse bootlegging story, Rakes is only amusing by his odd habits, (cleanliness, specific hair maintenance) and his raging opposition to the title "nance." He's a goofy antagonist who ultimately only serves to provide more psychotic violence, without any meat behind such psychosis. Score: 4
Jessica Chastain as Maggie Beauford: Chastain has much more to give than a role like this. Either that, or there's a lot of footage of her character (a female with her own toughness in this moonshine jar full o' testosterone) left to be witnessed in a Lawless DVD's deleted scenes. Chastain provides no effective force to the Bondurant's violent ways, leaving her a helpless housewife/mother to three young men who could easily lump her into harm's way. Score: 5
Rest of Cast: Though he's just as much a Bondurant brother as Forrest and Jack, Howard (Clarke) has no significance to this story. The same type of uselessness affects Mia Wasikowska, who is only in this movie to be an unattainable love interest to Jack for a handful of weak meet-cute sequences. Gary Oldman, resuming the placement of psychotic villain (which he had opposed in recent past roles), plays a gangster who is only needed for a couple of scenes, and then vanishes. Score: 5
TALKING: Similar to everything else in this movie, the dialogue is hot air, creating attitudes (about power through fear) through corny tough guy mutterings. Hardy, (along with LaBeouf's voice-over), is guilty for delivering many of the lines which includes generic wisdom such as "There's a lot that can't be forgiven," as spoken by his character Forrest. Score: 4
SIGHTS: Lawless gets its historical appearance from a use of unsaturated colors, which does give the southern story a dirty, dusty look. The film of course receives the most striking visuals from its amount of blood, which appears in over-the-top moments of violence that don't look away. Either for the sake of presenting viewers with gruesome "reality" or satisfying their current genre blood lust, Lawless giddily soaks up the grisliness of its violence. Score: 6
SOUNDS: Screenwriter Nick Cave and Warren Ellis compile a unique collection of songs not from the 1920s for the Lawless soundtrack, with the songs' odd placement distracting from their possible lyrical relevancy. "White Light/White Heat" by the Velvet Underground is given a bluegrass treatment by Ralph Stanley. Most surprisingly, "So You'll Aim Towards the Sky" by underrated '90s alternative rock group Grandaddy is given a melodramatic rendition by country singer Emmylou Harris, albeit its placement in one of the film's most startling scenes. The score for Lawless goes to a pandering extent with its instrumentation, using clean electric guitars clearly from our era to reach modern audiences. Score: 6
BEST SCENE: The throat-cutting scene. It's the most exciting moment in the entire film.
ENDING: After surviving epic violence, the one hero we actually care about meets a shockingly cold demise. The end credits of Lawless are introduced by pictures of the actual Bondurant Brothers, giving a little grit to this story.
REWATCHABILITY: I'm sure only parts of Lawless would hold up in another viewing. The rest would probably just be even slower in a second round.
Made for action movie viewers that worship Tony Montana, Lawless is a silly gangster movie that recalls 50 Cent's boyishly wishful biopic Get Rich or Die Tryin'. It is most concerned with selling an attitude (bein' a gangsta) over anything else, and its general story turns rinky-dink by having no serious focus on character. Instead, Lawless has aimless spurts of surface-level entertainment, as it offers moments of genre satiation by criminally misusing actors and forcing them to play hollow bad-asses. This interest in concept over plot affects its handling of other characters and the actors who sadly play them, as they are turned into arc-less tools only used when the movie desires to only create moments.
Adapting a historical fiction narrative as if it were a serial comic, Lawless mixes its serious attitude towards glorified (if not over-the-top) violence with heroes and villains that are pulpy cartoons. Just as the strong-tasting moonshine simply doesn't go with other liquids, the two different tones only succeed in making the other look ridiculous when swirled together.
Whether its sloppiness is a part of something director Hillcoat finds meaningful or not, Lawless is an odd movie, serviceable for only a few moments that hold no significance beyond face value. Nothing more than a dumb and brawny tale of disappointing flavor, Lawless has the sole artistic value of random throat blood splotches splattered onto an empty canvas.
FINAL SCORE: 4/10