Lawless is a bloody and violent film, one which whole-heartedly earns its 18 certificate. Set in rural Virginia circa 1931, it proposes to tell the true story of the Bondurant boys, siblings dedicated to the production and transportation of moonshine, attempting to grow rich off of prohibition’s halcyon days, yet still living in abject squalor. Based on a book by a Bondurant himself, and written for the screen by Nick Cave, one senses a great deal of truth has been massaged to bring us what is, in effect, a standard action thriller with a respectable and authentic-feeling period setting.
Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is coming of age and wants in on the family business, yet the shots are called by monosyllabic Forrest (Tom Hardy – single handedly bringing back the cardigan). Forrest is dubious as to whether Jack has the stones for some of the murkier waters that the brothers wade in. His reluctance to trust in his younger brother only makes Jack more determined. And moonshine isn’t the only thing brewing; Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a prohibition deputy, has come to their backwater county, and is looking to either shut them down or get in on the action. But those Bondurant boys sure do value their independence.
Thus the stage is set for all-out war, as Rakes and his goons try to muscle in on the Bondurant’s territory. It escalates to violence almost immediately. On the outskirts of all this is Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), clearly a man of some notoriety, especially to the Bondurant boys. His loyalties are to no one, but he may hold the key to bringing Rakes to heel. Throw in Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska as love interests for Forrest and Jack respectively, and you’ve got yourself a movie.
From the off, Lawless hits a curious, almost bumbling stride. A half-drunken canter. It’s hard to measure exactly what sort of movie Hillcoat is going for here. He’s earned his stripes in the world of the tough neo-Western before with The Proposition, but one wonders whether Lawless presented an opportunity to cruise comfortably for a little while. Though beautifully shot, it lacks the rugged poetic grandeur of, say, a No Country For Old Men or The Assassination of Jesse James. But then, one senses, it isn’t trying to swoon the critics. It doesn’t aspire to lofty heights. Lawless is a pulpy crime thriller which, as it devolves into gun play and cruelty, winks wryly at the audience. This feels more like the adaptation of some cooler-than-thou graphic novel rather than a studied depiction of genuine events.
It’s not hard to understand why Hillcoat may have chosen to play it this way. Coming off of The Road, an unrelentingly grey film, the proposition (sorry) of a more playful script must’ve been welcoming. But there is the strange feeling that this could’ve been a far more emotionally fulfilling experience than it is. Hillcoat’s having fun, but at the expense of the story.
For much of the first hour, there was scarcely an indication as to why I ought to care who won out on this little turf war. The Bondurants are not drawn with much warmth or depth. You root for them because, well, you’re supposed to right? Despite their predilections for crime and violence, this is their movie. They’re the protagonists, aren’t they? So, I went along with it, but there was little to get invested in. Luckily, events drew me in, and I found the second hour much improved. However – and this is a big however – this was only once I stopped looking at the movie as an empty attempt to mythologise these brothers and instead took it as a gun-toting exploitation flick. An even more backwater Killer Joe.
Performance-wise, my main concern was Shia LeBeouf. Cards on the table, I can’t stand the guy. Fortunately, he does hold his own here and he does carry much of the movie. Certainly the best thing I’ve seen him do. He is, however, upstaged by two great performances. Hardy brings a typical physicality to Forrest, a man of few words but many suggestive grunts – that this quickly falls into self-parody is something Hillcoat thankfully seems aware of; it gives the movie one of its great comedic touches. And then there is Guy Pearce. On form I haven’t seen him in for years.
Pearce seems to be vying here with Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men. Which one of them can play the bigger badass with an odd-as-fuck haircut. He makes Charlie Rakes one of the most enjoyable movie villains of the past few years; a prim and proper monster who veers off toward the downright sinister without a moment’s hesitation (what exactly was going on in that hotel room with the black prostitute for instance?). Clearly relishing the role, his presence lifts the film up, and things noticeably slacken when he’s not around.
As Lawless takes truth and turns it into farce it becomes more enjoyable. Virginians are tough, apparently, and there is an indestructibility to these characters that veers toward Wiley Coyote territory. I’ve not done deep background research into this story. But it feels embellished. A ripping yarn, but a yarn nonetheless. By the coda much of the violence seems to have been forgotten, and the brothers are coveted, like a band of Robin Hoods. But they were just hoods. And the pleasures of Lawless are all surface. Hillcoat’s film has no depth.
But I sense he wanted it that way.