Despite a mostly strong cast and some nice cinematography, "Lawless" is the type of film that never seems to be as good as it should be, leading to a plodding experience that fails to capture the energy or romanticism of the infamous prohibition era. Director John Hillcoat delivers plenty of ho-hum shootouts and grizzly violence, but the film is weighed down by an annoyingly over-the-top performance from Guy Pearce and a screenplay that doesn't really have anything to say about characters that should be fascinating. Though "Lawless" is still - on some level - a nice escape into the back alleys of an interesting piece of American history, there is a better movie to be made out of the material, and we're left with the helpless feeling that we've seen this all before.
Over the opening credits of "Lawless," we see an aerial view of Franklin County, Virginia, a seemingly never-ending wilderness that is scarcely inhabited at best. If the Volstead Act that established prohibition was difficult to enforce in cities all over the country, enforcing it on the hillbillies that run this neck of the woods is an exercise in futility. Seeing the bright side of the equation, most of the local law officers simply form partnerships with the locals brewing up moonshine by the truck load, making for a very lucrative black market that helps keep the area as wet as a hurricane.
Leading the operation is Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), a tight-lipped country boy who has a reputation of not backing down from anyone. Though he may be frequently a little slow on the uptake, nobody is going to question him for long after he delivers one of his menacing scowls. Backed by his loose cannon brother, Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest has built a reputation of being nothing short of invincible.
Trying to sneak into the operation is Forrest's younger brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf), a soft-hearted pretty boy who slicks his hair back just like the infamous gangsters he has plastered all over his wall. "We are bootleggers," Jack explains in an unnecessary voice-over to start the film, which would be helpful if we weren't already watching the bootlegging process. While the rest of the family is content with the backwoods lifestyle they've inherited, Jack is an outlier who dares to dream about something a little bit bigger.
Part of that dream involves trying to court the beautiful Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), who, of course, happens to be the preacher's daughter. In one of the best scenes of the film, Jack opens a bottle of moonshine to calm his nerves as he heads to church, where he hopes to make an impression on Bertha one way or another. If mixing moonshine and puppy love in front of the entire congregation doesn't sound like the best way to win over the preacher's daughter, that's because it isn't. The Bondurants may not be bright, but you have to like their audacity.
But even though it all seems like fun and games for the Bondurant gang, there is trouble brewing in the form of a new deputy dispatched to monitor illegal liquor sales around town. Fresh from the bloody streets of Chicago, where Al Capone runs the alcohol racket with an iron fist, Deputy Rakes (Guy Pearce) falsely believes he can shake down the implacable Forrest just because he has a couple Thompson machine guns backing him up. Pearce, who is very good in the right role, doesn't fit at all as the hubristic deputy who is so outlandish that he seems to be imported from another movie, or possibly from another dimension entirely. After director Hillcoat takes his time to establish a semblance of realism, all is just about lost when Pearce is on the screen.
Once Rakes shows up on the scene, "Lawless" forgets about a promising setup and potentially interesting characters, instead settling down so it can hammer away at the same revenge-driven notes over and over again. While we may care about what happens between LaBeouf and Wasikowska, the screenplay uses her simply as a pawn to escalate the stakes during some of the film's most harrowing moments. If it wasn't for Wasikowska's effortless likeability as the quiet but adventurous preacher's daughter, her character might have come off as a completely unnecessary side plot.
Also falling into that category are both Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) and Maggie (Jessica Chastain). Floyd is a first-rate bootlegger who seems to have an interesting story to tell, though he's stuck on the periphery and not allowed to have much of an impact. Another missed opportunity is Maggie, who is instantly attracted to Forrest because he's so much different than the smooth-talking urbanites she's used to. There seemed to be the making of an intriguing back story between the two, but the screenplay only pays their relationship lip service and we're left to fill in the blanks for ourselves.
Even with a good sense of humor and some likeable characters, "Lawless" eventually sinks under its own perceived legend, eventually becoming little more than a series of loosely connected acts of violence lacking in style. The freedom of country living does provide an interesting backdrop, but "Lawless" seems to be content with a drive-by version of our characters' lives, leaving the audience at a distance.
After similarly themed movies like "Winter's Bone," another grizzly tale about making up the rules in rural America, "Lawless" doesn't feel nearly as authentic as it wants to be, and we're left wondering if there was a better story to be told right around the corner. Though there are some bright points when Hardy, Wasikowska and even LaBeouf are on screen, "Lawless" ends up being an underwhelming trip into the days when bootleggers were kings.
by RTT Staff Writer
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