John Hillcoat’s previous two films both reached for quasi
mystical dimension. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that Lawless is an
almost determinedly surface film. Aside from a few moments of eccentricity
provided by Nick Cave’s script (a brief interlude at a Mennonite prayer meeting
composed entirely in chant, lines like, “You have no more idea what is going on
in the earth than the birds in the sky,”) Lawless is a movie that is entirely
about attractive people doing tough things and looking cool with guns. It is
one of the most unabashedly romanticized gangster films I’ve ever seen, making
The Town look like Animal Kingdom.
How much fun you have with the movie depends entirely on how
well you can accept that, and how well you can shelve your expectations for the
film that Lawless could have been. Because as it is Lawless is nothing more
than Peckinpah lite, with the finest Shia La Beouf beating this side of
Continuing this summer’s tradition of crime film’s featuring
vapid actors giving horrible voiceovers, LaBeouf himself tells the story of The
Bonderaunt brothers, the roughest toughest group of moonshiners in Franklin
County Virginia. All is well in Franklin county until they are set upon by a
corrupt government agent played by Guy Pierce. Pierce having just won the
interagency Klaus Nomi look alike contest, has been driven mad with power and
seeks to put all the moonshining in Franklin county under his control, The
Bonderaunt’s disagree. Hot tar, castration, throat cutting, and other acts of
violent dismemberment ensue.
The brothers are led by Tom Hardy (and the film would
probably have been a sight better if it had used him as the point of view
character rather than LaBeouf, make no mistake no matter what the advertising tells you Hardy is firmly in the passenger seat) still carrying his Bane muscle, most of his
dialogue monosyllabic. He’s in a hell of a cast,
including Pierce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, and Gary Oldman.
Unfortunately like the film, the cast has more in potential than realization.
Oldman’s roll amounts to barely more than a cameo and he’s not the only one who
all told just doesn’t have that much to do.
The film is surprisingly low stakes as a whole. After all
the chaos and atrocity that ends up committed on screen, the event that ends up
being the last straw is almost absurdly anti climatic (as the film rounds its
final bend it grabs clichés with both hands), and the final apocalyptic
shootout it inspires so low key that you can’t help but wonder why it didn’t
happen a whole lot early. Like most of Lawless it’s just kind of there. All and
all it’s tough to want to beat up on Lawless too much. It’s not a bad film by any means. Hillcoat gives the film a
distinct and beautiful natural light look. There are tense sequences, memorable
images, good lines and hard hitting moments. What it lacks is just about
anything or anyone to get remotely invested in. With all the gear up to it’s
release and drama and passion behind it’s making, the last thing I expected
from Lawless was something significantly less compelling and complex than any
given episode of Boardwalk Empire.