Film Review: Lawless
From Australian auteur John Hillcoat comes Lawless, a bloody, all guns blazing crime drama about the life of a family of moonshiners in the 1930’s. Written by Nick Cave (screenwriter of Hillcoat’s magnificent outback western The Proposition) and with an all star ensemble cast of young talent (Shia LaBeouf, Mia Wasikowska), rising stars (Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain) and established veterans (Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce), Lawless has huge expectations to live up to. Can it live up to the hype?
The answer will mostly depend on how squeamish you are, for Lawless is easily one of the most brutally violent films ever in mainstream cinema. Outside of horror films, it’s unlikely you’ll see this much explosive violence onscreen. Throats are slashed, faces are pummelled, and numerous people are shot numerous times. There’s even a tar and feathering that ranks as one of the most sickening scenes I’ve ever witnessed; and I’ve seen a lot of horror films. It’s no surprise that there is plenty of room for fights and shootings, as the plot is fairly basic, and leaves plenty of room for action.
The Bondurant brothers, consisting of youngest Jack (LaBeouf), middle brother Howard (Jason Clarke) and oldest Forrest (Hardy), are good old fashioned moonshiners, running a gas station and bar by day to front their illegal activities. One day, they are visited by new Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Pearce), a creepy, pantomime villain with no eyebrows and slicked back hair. Wanting a cut of all profits, Rakes is told to leave by Forrest, and retaliates by starting an all out war with the moonshiners of the county. In-between all this, Jack falls in love with preacher’s daughter Bertha (Wasikowska) and does business with his idol, mobster Floyd Banner (Oldman), and Forrest hires former dancer Maggie (Chastain) to be a waitress, suppressing all feelings he may have for her. It’s a fairly simple, routine plot that isn’t particularly innovative, and does run with a repetitive ‘tit-for-tat’ style revenge story, but does allow Hillcoat and Cave to go wild with violence and set pieces.
One of the recurring themes (bordering on jokes) is that Forrest truly believes he is invincible, and this is shown by him surviving numerous fatal attacks. He survives so much blood loss and pain, that the film borders on the ridiculous, but there is a very late twist, spoken by the adoring Maggie that does give him some more humanity. On the theme of violence, Lawless also houses a beating so severe, that the few minutes it lasts feels like an eternity. Rakes is threatening crippled family friend Cricket (Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan, giving another enjoyable performance) when Jack interrupts them, and is pummelled horrifically by Rakes. It’s bloody, bone crushingly nasty, and one of the first signs that there will be blood; a lot of blood.
Unusually for an ensemble piece, the acting, rather than featuring one or two outstanding performances, is all round solid from all the cast members, especially the leading trio. Somewhat surprisingly, given the talent involved, Shia LaBeouf gives the best performance as the weak but spirited Jack. Visibly not as strong or violent as his brothers, Jack is passionate about wanting to be a Bondurant but struggles to fight and kill like his brothers. It’s a charming and likeable performance, and Jack seems to be the only character in the film who lays it all out emotionally on the page, and Shia rewards the character with some of his finest acting to date. With this and Lars Von Trier’s upcoming Nymphomaniac, it appears LaBeouf is finally moving on from memories of the Transformers series.
Tom Hardy, as the quiet, bear-like Forrest, is given an incredibly tough role; a man so repressed he has basically no emotion or pity or anything human to him. He speaks in a low drawl, like Jeff Bridges in True Grit, and never really loses his cool or has any dramatic speeches. Hardy gives a fine performance, and looks terrifying, but it’s almost impossible for him to give a truly brilliant performance.
Guy Pearce as villain Rakes, meanwhile, may feel like he’s wandered in from a different film, and generally ticks every evil, over-the-top villain in cinematic history, but it’s still a great performance from one of the most underrated actors of his generation. Unlike numerous cinematic villains who are so cool you root for them, Rakes really is despicable, and winds up being one of the most hateable characters ever written.
It’s only really the supporting cast who can’t give great performances, because the characters are badly underwritten. Chastain is likeable and has a certain spark, but we learn very little about her from beginning to end, and the same goes for Clarke as Howard; he’s one of the brothers, yet gets less screen time than most of the supporting cast members. The biggest disappointment, character wise, is Gary Oldman, who is always considered one of the finest screen talents and yet only appears onscreen for a few minutes, and doesn’t get to do much when he does appear.
The overall weakness with the film itself is certainly the script; it may offer a few nice lines (“It is not the violence that sets men apart, it is the distance that he is prepared to go”) but ultimately spreads itself too thin. There are so many characters, fights and nasty set pieces that it ultimately never really gets under the skin of most of the characters, and you’re left with numerous supporting players whose stories should feel much more interesting and emotional than they do.
Many critics hated Lawless, calling it shallow and style over substance. To an extent, this is true; it certainly uses gratuitous violence as its calling card, and spends more time on big set pieces than character development, while taking itself far too seriously. Ultimately, however, Lawless is just a really entertaining film, with good acting, a hateable villain and some of the most rousing onscreen action you’ll see in 2012.
By Harry J. Ford
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