Directed By: John Hillcoat
Written By: Nick Cave (screenplay), Matt Bondurant (novel)
Starring: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, Jason Clarke, Jessica Chastain
What is right and what is wrong is often dependent upon perception. Film has the tendency to adjust that perception causing us to root for those we shouldn’t and jeer those we should celebrate. Some argue Hollywood glorifies the life of crime, while other would argue that glorification is really an insight to educate us on a world people ignorantly dismiss. What is certain is the best crime films are often those that can humanize their characters to develop a story of no true heroes. Morality is ambiguous never completely falling on one side or the other. John Hillcoat’s Lawless is a film that attempts that feat but never quite gets to that point. We are shown that law and morality are not one in the same as it tells the story of the legendary Bondurant brothers, who were leaders of a group of bootleg moonshiners in Virginia during the Great Depression. The Bondurants aren’t exactly what one would typically picture when they think of 1920’s gangsters. They are far more hillbilly than high class. That hillbilly backdrop gives a unique look to a common story, but more could have been done to separate Lawless from other films with similar themes and ideas. It also lets its characters off too easy by never giving them any type of internal conflict to struggle with. The world surrounding the Bondurants is so reprehensible their actions come off as strictly heroic deeds. Having nearly flawless heroes doesn’t make Lawless a bad film it just stops it from reaching its complete potential.
Part of that potential comes from the film’s cast. The cast list reads like a showcase of upcoming movie star lore and underappreciated veteran talent. With people like Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, and Jessica Chastain starring it was an interesting choice to have Shia LeBeouf lead the way, as Jack Bondurant the youngest of the three brothers. LeBeouf, who is often a fanboy punching bag, does he best to shed the stigma that we so easily stick to him. While he lost most of his sarcastic wit the remnants still show themselves from time to time. Overall he accomplishes what is asked of him, but not much more. His character never garners a true edge, more like a sharpened corner, but works well as the likeable underdog surrounded by brooding miscreants. Tom Hardy is ever his physical presence as the invincible Forrest Bondurant. Forrest, the man that death fears, survived The Great War, illness, and a gritty lifestyle. He doesn’t say much reserving most of his dialogue to a few mumbles and grunts. He does have some nice ‘wax poetic’ moments where he ‘speaks wise’ to people before brutally walling away on them with his trusty brass knuckles. Jason Clarke plays the third Bondurant brother Howard, who is the middle child in more ways than one. His personality falls in-between Jack and Forest as he wasn’t quite recluse that Forrest was or a personable innocent like Jack. He is mostly aloof and constantly only a few sips away from being plastered.
The Bondurant boys ran their business in what was nicknamed “The Wettest County in America”. Though bootlegging was a relative norm there was little violence in the county, unlike cities like Chicago that were under siege by gangsters like Al Capone. That all changed however when ‘special’ agent Charlie Rakes, who is played by an unrecognizable Guy Pearce, arrived in town. Pearce really threw himself into this role as a conniving agent with an eccentric personality and overwhelming desire for violence. Strangely he came off very much like a Dick Tracey esc villain with his larger than life persona. Rakes is brought to the ‘wetest county’ to change things, but not in the way you would expect. He is meant to get the bootleggers in line by having them pay off the officers to look the other way. Forrest Bondurant refuses Rakes’ offer as it goes against what he stands for. Rakes is not a man who is used to being told no, and makes it his goal to bring down the ‘immortal’ Bondurant brothers. Watching Rakes and Forrest go verbally toe to toe were some of the best parts of the film. It showed how powerful great acting can be in building suspense. Neither force’s will wants to give anything to the other knowing each will most likely be the others downfall. Unfortunately we didn’t get enough of those moments. Rakes ends up seeking his vengeance indirectly rather then directly when dealing with the Bondurants.
On the other hand while I did enjoy Pearce’s performance his actual character left a lot to be desired. For one he was far too one dimensional. Like a Dick Tracey villain his actions were simply justified based on the fact that he is evil. You never get a true explanation for his motives. Certain things were hinted at to allow you to infer your own reasons, but with his character being such a vital role it would have made the film more effective if his motives were more flushed out. Instead his violent acts gave the audience an easy out. Whatever the Bondurants do is easily justified as payback to what was done to them. We never have to struggle with the question of right and wrong because it was never presented to us. The reason this is an issue is because of the ‘paint by numbers’ way the plot was put together. We have seen this story before plenty of times so by the first act you can effortlessly hypothesize were the movie will go next. By providing some sort inner conflict it could have created a deeper film to make up for the otherwise lackluster plot.
What wasn’t lackluster was the dedication the film had to the time period. From the set to design to the costumes everything wept of authenticity. The detail that was put in to make everything true to the time was impeccable. Being a fan of this era I was mightily impressed at the work that went in to getting it right. That along with the score did a lot to set the film’s mood. Usually when it comes to period pieces you have a set cavalcade of songs that come roaring in every so often. In this almost every song that was played was something I never heard before, and more importantly it served as a reminder of when and where you were. Details like this provide evidence that you are dealing with filmmakers that care about the product they are putting out, which makes the film’s issues that more curious. When you consider the strong cast, how great the film looks, and the great score you realize a plot that is only a few notches better could have caused the film to be great. Instead we are given a movie riddled with inconsistency. When the movie is working it is really working, but just as the momentum grows it gets derailed for one reason or another. That lack of momentum becomes very noticeable as it clumsily builds to the final act. When the final showdown does come it felt very satisfying as you see the inevitable conclusion play out, but while the movies satisfies it does not do enough to leave a long lasting impression. Interesting enough the biggest conflict I had was determining my overall opinion of the film. When I considered everything I was able to determine that Lawless gives you a lot to enjoy, but regrettably it just never gives you anything to chew on.