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Movie Review: Lawless (2012)
Director: John Hillicoat
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Guy Pearce, Dane DeHaan
Lawless tells the true story of the Bondurant brothers – – runt of the litter Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and tough guys Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) – – a gang of bootleggers in Prohibition-era Virginia whose business is threatened when a sleazy Chicago lawman named Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) shows up and demands a cut of their profits. Based on the novel The Wettest County in the World, written by Jack Bondurant's grandson Matt.
What's Good About the Movie?:
The most obvious highlight of the film is its look: Lawless is a visually stunning film. With production designer Chris Kennedy and art director Gershon Ginsberg creating a beautifully authentic Prohibition-era Virginia, and Benoit Delhomme's elegant widescreen cinematography complimenting their work, there is not a moment of Lawless that isn't gorgeous and atmospheric. The musical score by Cave and Warren Ellis contributes to the look considerably, and their choice to blend in some period songs is an especially nice touch. The work from the behind the scenes crew is first rate, so much so that if some of them aren't mentioned during awards seasons, it would be an even bigger crime than anything pulled off by the Bondurant brothers in the film.
The acting is also very solid, almost across the board (there are some performances here that don't work). Tom Hardy mostly grunts and mumbles as the seemingly invincible Forrest, who is so tough that when he has his throat slit half way through the film, he holds the edges of the wound together and walks himself to the hospital in the middle of a snow storm (or so we think until the end). He's a commanding screen presence, and manages to hold our attention every time he's on screen. Gary Oldman is also effective, although it should be noted that the actor is so underused that he could've easily been excised from the film without hurting it at all. Jessica Chastain is, of course, luminous as Maggie, a ex-dancer from Chicago who left the big city to live a more peaceful life in the country. Mia Wasikowska brings a real sweetness to the role of Bertha Minx, the daughter of a stern preacher who eventually captures the heart of Jack.
And while many people have criticized his work here, I actually thought Shia LaBeouf did a commendable job as the youngest of the Bondurant clan. He's very convincing playing the most timid of the trio in the earlier scenes, and is positively electrifying when he becomes more aggressive in the later part of the picture. This is some of his better work as an actor and, although his voice over narration may be a little bland and unnecessary, it should not be so easily dismissed..
There are a couple of amusing interludes sprinkled throughout the film, such as Forrest's awkward response to Maggie's attempts at seducing him. There are also a couple of gruelingly effective moments as well, such as when Forrest and Howard exact a very gruesome revenge against the men who slit Forrest's throat. Lawless looks great and has some solid performances. However....
What's Bad About the Movie?:
Director John Hillicoat and screenwriter Nick Cave have somehow managed to tell a story that is completely bereft of insight or depth. A lot of hard work went into the making of this film, but it's all at the service of a narrative that feels too thin and formulaic to really make us care. There's little passion or flair in the way Lawless plays out, and when the movie finally ends, you're more likely to shrug your shoulders than anything else.
As mentioned before, there are some bad performances in the film. Jason Clarke is bland as Howard, although his character is so poorly used that it may not even be his fault. Also wasted is Dane DeHaan, who was so good in this year's Chronicle. He plays the harmless crippled kid named Cricket, and because he's both crippled and the most innocent member of the Bondurbant gang, it's almost a guarantee that something horrible will happen to him to enrage the brothers all the more. It is truly a thankless role.
But the one who really takes the cake is Guy Pearce. His performance is so over-the-top that he stops playing a human being and turns into a laughable cartoon. I have no doubt that ruthless and evil men like his Charley Rakes existed in the past (and still do), but surely they were more interesting than this clown. Pearce is one-note and hammy throughout, and every time he's on screen, the movie becomes pretty painful to watch.
Of course, it's not like he was given a particularly compelling character to play. No one in this film is, which makes it all the more surprising that some of the performances work at all. No doubt the real life Bondurant brothers were very interesting figures, but you wouldn't know that from this film. Cave's screenplay is so thin that we're never allowed to see past the surface and get a sense of who these people were. Everyone here is pretty much defined by one character trait in the beginning (Jack is the Timid One, Forrest is the Quiet One, Howard is the Violent One), and for the full 110 minutes the film plays out, it never really goes any deeper than that.
This hurts the romantic interludes all the more, which were, I assume, meant to humanize the characters. Maggie is introduced wanting to work as a barmaid in Forrest's restaurant front, and we can see right away that a romance is in the works. Unfortunately, we don't buy it for a second. When the movie reaches the aforementioned scene where Maggie tries seducing Forrest in his bedroom, we can chuckle at Forrest's response on the one hand, but are eventually left wondering how their relationship came to this point. Maybe if the movie were longer and had more time to develop that subplot, it might have worked. But their romance seems more like a requirement of the screenplay than an act of genuine passion, and the seduction scene itself feels like an excuse to add some nudity in the film.
The romance between Jack and Bertha fares even worse. Earlier in the film, Jack tries to get Bertha's attention while her father is preaching a sermon in his church. He ends up making an spectacle of himself, storming drunkenly out of the church, kicking over a few chairs in the process, just as Bertha was about to wash his feet. After that, they're head over heals in love with each other. The romance between Maggie and Forrest had the potential to develop into an engaging love story had more been done with it. The romance between Bertha and Jack, on the other hand, is rushed and unconvincing, and exists mainly as a reason for Jack to unintentionally endanger their bootlegging business.
And special mention must be made of that “feel good” epilogue. I have no problem with what the movie was trying for, what I didn't like is that it goes on for a lot longer than it should, and there did reach a point during this sequence where I started checking the time and growing impatient.
A film that is considerably less than the sum of its parts, Lawless isn't so much a bad film as it is a misguided one. Had the movie brought more insight and focus to the material, it might have been something special. As it is, Lawless is a well made misfire, burdened by hefty ambitions the movie seems incapable of supporting.
Final Grade: ** (out of ****)