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All Bloodied Up with Nowhere to Go: A Review of Lawless

Lawless, the violent blood and alcohol soaked prohibition drama, is often a movie of impeccable craftsmanship. It’s a surprise then, and no small shame, that so much goes wrong. Directed by John Hillcoat from a screenplay by Nick Cave, Lawless sports a superb cast of actors, including Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, and Mia Wasikowska. Flaws abound in this movie however, and ultimately, Lawless trips over its endless storyline and gratuitous violence.
But let’s start at the beginning. Lawless is based on the book The Wettest County in the World, by Matt Bondurant. The book immortalizes the true story of the three Bondurant brothers, a rag-tag group of bootleggers who made their mark during the Prohibition era selling homemade moonshine to the alcohol-starved population of Franklin County, VA, circa 1930. Shia LeBeouf plays Jack, the youngest Bondurant, in a welcome change from his turn in the Transfomers trilogy. Jack is a bumbling and yet likeable youngster as he narrates the film while proving his gangster mettle to his overbearing older brothers. These include Howard (Jason Clarke), a somewhat quiet but violent peasant, and Forrest, (Tom Hardy), a seemingly invincible brute who masterminds operations. As Forrest, Mr. Hardy exerts a piggish sort of charm, and may remind viewers of his performance as Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, with his character’s shared taste for subtle body language and the odd linguistic tic.

What separates Lawless from your average market-friendly gangster period-piece is a taste for earnest drama, supplied by the movie’s romances. Forrest’s love interest Maggie, the sublimely feminine Jessica Chastain, and Jack’s religious beau Bertha, the understated Mia Wasikowska, provide romantic spark and pull that give some heft to the proceedings. For these sub-plots the director wisely strays into tangential territory, and thus enriches the film. Mr. LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant is a doofus and a loser, but one that is sweetly tempered and fiercely loyal, and it’s a pleasure watching him stumble around Bertha as he attempts to woo her against the wishes of her religious and protective
father. Viewers will have fond memories of this movie’s church scene, filmed with taste and fully realized psychological undertones.

Inevitably in a story like this, our heroes encounter ubiquitous skirmishes with the law, which here manifests in the form of Special Agent Charlie Rakes, an officer who wears leather gloves and too much cologne. Rake, who is played by Guy Pearce, revels in his character’s arch-villainy, and is sufficiently slimy to invite some welcome distractions from the movie’s atrocious violence. That violence is a result of countless shoot-outs, beatings, bruises, and bullets, all of which the movie seems to celebrate. Blood spurts from all manner of wounds and cuts, and in one scene, our heroes send Rakes a set of anatomical body parts in frilly pink wrapping paper. Yes, those parts.

Thus, for many of the movie’s scenes I found it hard to keep my eyes on the screen. Lawless’s violence is half of the movie’s over-complicated storyline, which involves characters that add nothing to the movie and should have been left on the cutting room floor. At the end, the movie stumbles and lags, and moves into cliché territory. I found it hard to concentrate after two hours of beautiful production littered with hackneyed plot reversals.

And that’s the point isn’t it? The production was sublime, with beautiful location shooting and costumes that realistically keep to the time. The acting left nothing to be desired. However, the movie ultimately confused me as to its message. Is this an indie drama masquerading as a gun-and-bullets crime flick, or a mass-market ensemble film with dramatic undertones? Failing to answer that question, the makers of Lawless divested the movie from much of its cinematic qualities. It’s a diamond in the rough, if not in the Virginia mud.