Lawless (USA) Directed by John Hillcoat Written by Nick Cave Starring Tom Hardy; Shia LeBouf; Jessica Chastain; Mia Wasilowska; Guy Pearce; Jason Clarke; Noah Taylor; Mia Wasilowska;
Based on the 2008 historic novel The Wettest County in the World by John Bondurant, Lawless tells a violent story based on the author’s real life family, The Franklin County, Virginia Bondurant’s - bootleggers who ran moonshine during Prohibition.
While it’s not difficult to see what attracted writer Nick Cave (who also shares credit for the quality score) and friend and frequent collaborator, director John Hillcoat, to the material, it is equally apparent that the film suffers from a decided stylistic uneveness and an inability to adequately cover the story in the allotted time frame. Where Hillcoat’s two previous offerings,The Proposition and The Road, felt fully grounded in their individual movie worlds, this one seems caught in some kind of nether-land between lyrically sweeping legend and a more realistic historic crime story.
Not helping matters are elements like actor Tom Hardy’s (as middle brother/boss Forrest) anachronistic physique. Try as they might to obscure his bulky upper torso with buttoned-up long sleeve shirts and cardigan sweaters there is no missing Hardy/Bane’s post Dark Knight middle-linebacker’s neck and shoulders. Perhaps also carrying over from that film are the grunts Hardy repeatedly employs in lieu of spoken words. Further, Guy Pearce as Chicago lawman Rakes comes out of the gate like a fellow comic book villain flown in from Gotham, and the scene where Forrest and Rakes meet is embarrassingly bad, owing mainly to Pearce’s over the top performance and bizarre look, and the fact that the two actors choose to make noises at one another as if they were in acting class embodying their spirit animals.
The cast is obviously a talented one, though the accents are wildly divergent (not helped any by a slew of British and Australian actors doing their own bad versions), which further contributes to the feeling of disjointedness. There is a rather obvious attempt to frame the story by centering on immature youngest brother Jack’s desire to join the family business and garner respect from Forrest and brother Howard (Jason Clarke), though this plot-line winds up feeling forced, a transparent attempt to connect with audiences and deflect from some of the violence on display. The further injection of a theme about country versus city, with urban gangsters and police infiltrating this close-knit rural area, adds to the piling on in a plot that already totters with the inclusion of two love stories and the wide-reaching family bootlegging tale.
Though the overall events still hold some interest, much of the excellent cast is, in large part, underutilized, with roles for Jason Clarke; Mia Wasilowska; Gary Oldman; and (the wonderful) Jessica Chastain particularly under-written. One can appreciate a film that refrains from revealing a wealth of character back-story, but this one seems to want its cake and eat it too. One can imagine a much more minimalistic approach as in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James (2007) paying dividends. While that film was loaded with visual panache the story itself landed in a realistic realm, making the scenes feel much more like life-lived, and the accompanying violence all that much more cold and shocking.
Here we are faced with movie characters consistently and self-referentially talking about the “legend” of the “invincible” Bondurants, or (in the case of the largely silent Forrest) in places speechifying about the nature of life. Neither is a good idea under almost any circumstances, and in the end we wind up feeling that the film is more than a little obsessed with ensuring that the audience understands that their history is indeed epic, without actually demonstrating it to us (or at least allowing the events we see to stand on their own). What results is that the film seems not to live up to its own self-promotion and overt ambition and has a similar flatness to Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, a well-made, well-documented piece of historical fiction that failed to connect on an emotional level. Frankly too, the material is not helped by audiences having recently been exposed to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, which in every way does better things with similar subject matter.
While Lawless certainly recalls a number of like-minded films of the type (including Hillcoat’s afore-mentioned The Proposition), it misses some essential combination of action/style/humor that comparables like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid; Bonnie and Clyde; or McCabe and Mrs. Miller seem to share; or even the poignant characterization of the little guy against The Man as in a film like John Sayles’ Matewan (1987). The performances are good, though hardly memorable, and as a whole not at all cohesive. One even gets the impression that top-notch actors like Hardy and Chastain are, in a few instances, grasping to try to imbue their sketchy roles with moments that are simply not there in the script. The film hints at exploring the relationships between non-verbal characters who are loathe to express emotion, but any time Lawless gets close to revealing something important about any of these people it cuts away. Perhaps a cable series/mini-series would have allowed sufficient time to effectively draw these characters and events in a real way as on the surface the material is undoubtedly compelling.
An additional issue is that there is 17 years separating the real life ages of Clarke (43); Hardy (34); and LeBouf (26), and the fact that they look and sound absolutely nothing alike doesn’t make it any easier to buy them as brothers. Sure there are allowances made for actors playing family members, but in a movie with a lot of uncomfortable components it’s just one more crack in an already shaky foundation.