by Daniel Rester
Lawless is the latest period piece film based on a novel. The source material this time is The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, which tells the story of Bondurant’s grandfather and uncles. These men were famous moonshiners in Franklin County, Virginia during the Prohibition era. The story comes to the screen from writer Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat, the duo behind the bloody and brilliant Western The Proposition. Along with them this time is a bevy of fine actors, including Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and Guy Pearce.
As said, Lawless tells the story of a group of brothers who are involved with moonshining. The oldest is Forrest (Hardy), the large, quiet leader of the brothers. The middle brother is Howard (Jason Clarke). And the youngest of them is Jack (LaBeouf), who tries to live up to his brothers’ name. The Bondurants are the finest moonshiners in Franklin and stand down to no one. This includes Charlie Rakes (Pearce), a dapper, intimidating federal agent from Chicago who joins the local law enforcement in trying to bring the brothers (and other bootleggers) down.
In the midst of all of this a woman named Maggie (Jessica Chastain) leaves Chicago and comes to work for the brothers at their diner/gas station. She eventually falls for Forrest, while Jack falls for a preacher’s young daughter (played by Mia Wasikowska). Also in the mix is Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), a famous outlaw that Jack admires, and Cricket (Dane DeHaan), a crippled friend of Jack’s.
Lawless is a film that is easy to admire but hard to love. It has terrific ingredients going for it, but never quite finds enough balance to cross over the “Oscar-worthy” line – though it tries since it has the bait of a first-rate cast and a historical setting. Part of its problem is that it has too many underdeveloped characters (especially Maggie and Banner) and here-and-there storytelling, with Cave’s screenplay and Hillcoat’s treatment occasionally feeling listless. The movie also goes on too long, has implausible moments where characters should die and don’t, and features superficial touches that leave the audience yearning for more (like story details and the underdeveloped characters). Also, many of the scenes are magnificently shot but occasionally have a dim and washed-out look — that sometimes distracts.
Faults aside, Lawless is still a solid piece of entertainment. Hillcoat expertly recreates the era and (mostly) captures it with exceptional skill, with aid from cinematographer Benoit Delhomme. The sets, costumes, and music are also praiseworthy in presenting the movie’s look and feel. Many of the action scenes are also thrilling and well-shot, with plenty of blood-soaked scenes to earn the movie it’s R-rating.
The cast of the film is charismatic and keeps it from being just above-average. Hardy gives yet another fine performance, though Hillcoat has him resorting to sounding like a bullfrog at points. LaBeouf also impresses and proves that he may have better acting chops than many have presumed. These two actors stand out among the heavy cast, but Pearce rises above all. With his slick hair, shaved eyebrows, and creepy demeanor, Pearce presents a strange and memorable villain with Rakes – though admittedly somewhat over-the-top and cartoonish. Everyone in the cast also play off of each other very well, making the characters have a certain realness that makes up for what they lack in depth.
Lawless doesn’t live up to its full potential, but it still has enough going for it to make it a really good period piece/action film. Cave and Hillcoat still prove to be a good team for the most part, as well. But it’s the cast that raises the film, with Pearce alone making it worth watching.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B+).