Before Lawless came out it was being regarded as one of the early Oscar contenders; this was around the time after all the summer blockbusters ceased coming out. Well, it turned out to be far off from that. Lawless has been compared frequently to Public Enemies. This seemed to have been at least lightly inspired by it at best. Unfortunately, it took the worst parts. For a movie dealing with gangsters in 1931, it can get boring in stretches. What bogs it down for me in the beginning is the narration. Shia LaBeouf wouldn’t be my first choice to deliver narration (especially with this accent), what kills is how it meanders around the plot. In the end, there was no need – at lest shouldn’t have been as much. But, even with its problems, it can be pretty entertaining at times.
Based on Matt Bondurant’s historical novel The Wettest Country in the World, Lawless follows the three Bondurant brothers, they live in the mountains of Franklin Country, Virginia, making and selling moonshine during the Prohibition. The oldest brother is Howard (Jason Clarke). He has the reputation of being indestructible; Howard was the sole survivor in his unit from the war. The middle brother is Forrest (Tom Hardy); he is known for living through the ever so deadly Spanish Flu. The youngest brother, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), desperately wants to be “bigger” than he is now. Live is good for all of them. Their luck runs out however, when Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) – a special agent from Chicago – warns the brothers to pay their due. They don’t stand for this and are willing to fight to keep things the way they’ve always been.
John Hillcoat is known for directing movies with dark atmospheres that can get very depressing at times. While this isn’t what you’d label a feel-good movie, it can be light in stretches and nothing ever remotely goes into dark gritty territory. I’m not the biggest fan of Hillcoat, but I like certain aspects of his direction. The Road was Hillcoat’s last movie. While that had a lot of untapped potential, all in all it was solid. The main problem here is Lawless never knows what to do with itself. It takes time to get started. Now that doesn’t have to be a problem all the time, but in this case it’s far off from what happens when everything gets into gear. Elements of straight-up action are present, then it seems like maybe a character study, next you wonder if you’re watching a romantic comedy. Nothing gelled together. I got the impression many ideas were thrown around. It never lost me completely, it’s just sloppy.
Nick Cave wrote the screenplay. Many aspects are solid. The biggest problem is nothing remotely new is brought to the genre. The story and characters are cliched. What bugged me most about the script though is it not going far enough. Whenever a dark moment would come up or seem to be set up, nothing would be done. Overall, it feels like an old shoot ‘em up. Anyone could have written this. It’s sad because Cave can do wonders. I bet he bought a book called, How to Write a Gangster Movie Taking Place in 1931 for Dummies. I’m not making fun; I like those books.
The performances were all passable save for one. Shia LaBeouf was miscast; I can think of countless other actors who would have fitted the role better. I don’t know why, but something about him is unlikable to me. He’s not necessarily bad, but just feels disconnected. I heard an interesting fact about his acting in the movie. It turns out Shia admitted (many times) to actually getting drunk to film many scenes. I love method acting, for the most part, but with a few details and cast member quotes, this seems like something different… Tom Hardy easily is the best. Hardy has really mastered the silent tough guy. Honestly, while watching I kept thinking – The Dark Knight Rises spoiler – Bane lived and drifted to this town. The character talks like Bane and barely moves his mouth. Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke are extremely good at times. Gary Oldman is way underused and Guy Pearce kind of freaked me out.
The cinematography was done well; some gorgeous shots capture the time period skillfully. The production value is top notch. Nothing takes me out of a movie more than not believing where everything is taking place. The only thing that bothered me in that element was Guy Pearce’s character. Man, he just looks weird. He has no eyebrows, a major hair part down the middle, and even talks funny. I think the intention was to be unusual, but scary. Similar to Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. I’m talking about the intent mind you, this, nor anything else I’ve seen compares to Anton Chigurh. The soundtrack is another element that kept me in the time period. Lawless is dominated by folksy bluegrass songs. Overall, if you’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, you will be disappointed. With that being said, if you want to be simply entertained, I say it’s worth seeing in that regard – just not in theater.