I’m not sure I’ll ever take Shia LaBeouf seriously. But at least in “Lawless” he isn’t distracting and spends most of the film in good, nay better, company, namely Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, Tom Hardy and rising star Jessica Chastain.
Loosely based on the true story of the bootlegging Bondurant bros, youngest of the three, Jack (LaBeouf), narrates his family’s distilled adventures during the pesky Prohibition. Far from the caliber of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”, we get a modest story about a rather centralized incident. Sure, there’s plenty of references to Chicago, like gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), who functions as a cipher for all the career criminals and fades away just as quickly, but our story focuses on the boondocks of Franklin County, Virginia and how city law actually has little worth in the countryside.
Everyone enjoys a little moonshine, even the cops, but pompous Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Pearce) and the Commonwealth’s Attorney Mason Wardell (Tim Tolin) wanna bring some of the corporate mentality to this local chain. The local PD supports this McDonaldization of the liquor biz and plenty of brewers in the area fold under pressure, but older brother, Forrest (Hardy), won’t back down, so Agent Rakes puts the pressure on with the fury of a corrupt law system.
Don’t except a thrilling crime saga. Director John Hillcoat (“The Road”) spends far more time on characters than plot points. Sadly, since crime dramas are an over-tapped resource, most of the film’s attempts at emotionality meet frivolous ends. Profound scenes fall flat, replacing memorability with gangster cliches: i.e., the damsel, Maggie Beauford (Chastain), who constantly fears her man, Forrest, will ever return; the young Jack with a desire to see their business expand; a best friend, Cricket (Dane DeHaan), who’s physically disabled but good with automobiles; and Jack’s romantic pursuit of Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), the preacher’s daughter.
“Lawless” marks the third feature film collaboration between Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave , along with music video and shorts work together. While there’s clear talent here, I’m not convinced this is a complimentary relationship, especially considering the lack of pacing or true sense of narrative direction that riddles their joint endeavors.
This film might be LaBeouf’s show, but the minor characters are more interesting. Tom Hardy remains at the top of his game even if his articulation channels Heath Leger’s mumbling in “Brokeback Mountain”. Oddly, this bit provides the majority of the film’s humor. Next, Gary Oldman, the powerhouse of acting awesomeness, is fantastic as a likable villain, if completely underused.
One of the more surprising performances is Jason Clarke as middle brother, Howard. The film appears predictable enough, yet his often clichéd performance doesn’t go down the more traveled path in a conventional action film. He may be a drunken oaf with a mean right hook, but he’s far from John Steinbeck’s Lennie.
As for Guy Pearce as the chief villain, at least he knows how to make us hate him. He ain’t dynamic but he elevates the film’s smug level far more than any martini-loving, caviar-popping upper class stereotype normally would. He’s pure corruption, divorced of all remorse and hates anything that stands in the way of pure industrial growth, namely small-town politics content with privatization of law and development.
For all its downfalls, “Lawless” isn’t terrible. In fact, it contains many charms. Modest is the key word here in describing a biopic that takes place within a short timespan rather than something more spread out and usually far more exhausting. It’s enjoyable if for only until something better premieres.
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