There’s something that’s missing from Lawless, and it’s noticeable fairly early into the movie. It’s not something that completely ruins the film, but it’s definitely something that keeps it from being overly memorable, or reaching any sort of greatness that it may have achieved otherwise.
Lawless stars Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke as the Bondurant brothers – three brothers who made a living in making bootlegged alcohol during the depression era in Franklin County, Virginia. The film is based on a true story about how the crooked Special Deputy Charles Rakes (played brilliantly by an almost unrecognizable Guy Pearce) came to Franklin County looking to get a piece of the action in return for keeping the illegal activities on the down low, and how the Bondurant boys ignored his request, and fought to keep their “business” independent.
There’s a lot going on in this film, which is based off the book “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant (who is the grandson of one of the characters in the film), and while there’s a great story to tell in here, some of it is too briefly touched upon, while other aspects are focused on a bit too much.
First, there’s the focus of the story, which is that of LaBeouf’s character, Jack, the youngest of the three. Now I’ve got nothing against LaBeouf, and he does a really good job here alongside some other great actors, and they really deliver some powerful scenes. The thing is, even though this is Jack’s story, he’s almost telling it about his brother Forrest (Hardy), who is the real badass of the family that we, as the audience, want to see more of.
Of course, this is based on a true story, and while you can take some liberties with what really happened, you can’t go out and make Forrest a one man wrecking crew who singlehandedly goes on a rampage against those doing his family wrong – even though that’s what we want to see him do. Instead, we follow Jack’s rise from runt of the litter, to the man with the plan. The main problem with this is that it’s all so sudden. For a film that’s just under two hours in length, the reasoning behind Jack’s desire to be fully recognized by his brothers, and his subsequent rise to glory is merely touched upon. It happens so quickly, in fact, that Gary Oldman – who plays famous gangster Floyd Banner – can basically be considered a cameo, as his few scenes with Jack are gone before they really begin.
As clunky as Jack’s character arc may be, it’s Rakes that really helps keep the film going, as he’s just an incredibly memorable bad guy that you really want to see get his. Pearce, whom I truly believe is one of the most underrated actors around today, is fantastic, and really steals every scene he’s in. He’s a guy who is both vicious and smart, and while this comes across for the most part, there are some awkward moments where it seems like a fairly hefty amount of time has passed and you wonder what he’s up to during those times when it seems most opportune to strike.
As far as Hardy is concerned, this movie helps solidify him as one of the biggest, most talented badasses in Hollywood right now. He’s got a great accent and voice in which he delivers his lines, and it really helps make his character stand out from the rest, and tells the audience a lot about him without the need to spell it out. I mean, Hardy wears a sweater throughout most of the movie, and I shouldn’t have to tell you that it takes quite an intimidating guy to make a sweater look cool.
Still, as awesome as Forrest is, and as well as Hardy plays him, his character and story feels incomplete, as certain aspects are once again just touched upon in order to fit them in alongside everything else. Like the love story between Forrest and city-girl Maggie (Jessica Chastain), which is told on a basic level. While we as an audience understand what’s going on, we just don’t feel anything one way or another because there’s really no true emotional connection to the characters.
Then there’s the final act, which I won’t delve into other than to say that it’s awkwardly handled by either writer Nick Cave or director John Hillcoat (The Road), or both. The pot is slowly brewing throughout, and just as things come to a boil, it’s almost confusing as to how people act and respond to things as it all comes to a head. Trust me when I say you’ll understand what I mean when you see it. On top of that, there’s a denouement that’s tacked on to help wrap things up, and while it works overall, there’s one part of it that would’ve been best left out, as it looks silly and would’ve been better off simply having been explained through voice over without actually seeing it all happen.
Hillcoat does do a great job of capturing the world visually, as he sets the perfect tones throughout, and there is a constant sense that things are bubbling beneath the surface just waiting to explode. He also holds nothing back when it comes to the violence, really ripping into things (literally in some cases) right for the camera to see. While it’s graphic on some level, it’s also not graphic enough so as to ruin the experience for viewers who may not want to see things up close and personal. Sure you could say go elsewhere, but the key to gaining a large audience for your work is to not discriminate one side or the other, and Hillcoat manages to balance things out perfectly. In fact, the most graphic, shocking scene is also one of the most beautifully shot as well.
While it has its flaws, Lawless is still a fairly solid dramatic crime film that focuses on an interesting time in American history. The characters aren’t overly strong in their development; however, the actors make up for it with some truly great performances. When you take into account that this is based off a true story, and it’s likely a fairly accurate account of what happened during this period, Lawless is a pretty crazy story. It’s just too bad they didn’t dig a little deeper and deliver something a little more character driven and memorable.
Lawless looks great and sounds great for the most part. There are times when the dialogue seems quite low, and it’s a strain to hear what’s being said. This may not be the case for everyone, but at least for the first quarter of the film, that’s how it was for me. It became less noticeable as time went on, so it may have worked itself in the latter half, and otherwise on the sound front there’s some great use of music and effects that really add to the atmosphere.
Commentary with Director John Hillcoat and Author Matt Bondurant – These are two guys you want to hear from if there’s more you want to learn about the making of this film. Obviously Bondurant did plenty of research for his book, so he’s able to give lots of deeper insight into the characters throughout.
The True Story of the Wettest County in the World – This feature is 21 1/2 minutes in length and sees the cast, crew and grandchildren of the Bondurant boys talking about the history behind them, and the way things were at the time.
Franklin County, VA: Then and Now – This featurette is just over six minutes and covers over why people went to Franklin County during this time period, and how it’s quite a beautiful place to live today.
The Story of the Bondurant Family – This feature runs at just under 13 minutes in length, and sees author Matt Bondurant talking about the history of his family, and the research he delved into in order to write his book.
Deleted Scenes – There are six scenes to be found here, and none of them really needed to make the cut, as they all would have just slowed the pacing and said things already well implied.
“Midnight Run” Willie Nelson Music Video
Lawless is worth checking out if the subject matter appeals to you. While there’s something lacking from the overall product, the performances throughout are still strong, and there’s enough to this story with what’s here that you likely won’t walk away disappointed.
The Weinstein Company presents Lawless. Directed by: John Hillcoat. Written by: Nick Cave. Based on the novel by: Matt Bondurant Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain. Running time: 116 minutes. Rating: R. Released: November 27, 2012. Available at Amazon.com.