With Lawless, I was hoping for a late-summer powerhouse that would top off a mediocre season. I figured a film with John Hillcoat at the helm and featuring Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce and Shia LaBeouf couldn't fail.
While Lawless isn't a complete failure, it is a bit of a letdown. I was expecting much more than a typical backwoods moonshine thriller.
Hillcoat is responsible for two movies I like very much. The Proposition (starring Pearce) and The Road (Pearce has a couple of minutes in that one, too) featured dark, stylized filmmaking. Now, with this, Hillcoat is telling the "true story" of the Bondurant brothers, Depression-era bootleggers who stood up to the law. That sounded appealing.
It makes the mistake of positioning the youngest brother, Jack (LaBeouf), as the primary character, while his older brothers, Forrest (Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke), are far more compelling. LaBeouf isn't necessarily bad in the role; it's just that Hardy and Clarke are way better and far more interesting to watch. Whenever the screenplay (written by Nick Cave) turns to Jack, it dulls out. When Forrest takes center stage, things light up.
As Charlie Rakes, a lawman sent from Chicago to Virginia to mess with the bootleggers, Pearce goes the cartoon-villain route. He is fun to watch at times, but much like Michael Shannon's performance in the recent Premium Rush, his nutty, overblown acting seems out of place. (Trivia note: Shannon was originally cast in the production, but left after financial problems caused it to stall.)
Pearce is appropriately nasty at times, but clownish in others. There were moments when I was reminded of Joe Piscopo's Danny Vermin from Johnny Dangerously. Yeah, that's an obscure reference, but an accurate one.
The Pearce performance also reminded me of Gary Oldman's villainous, outlandish and far-superior scene-chewing in Léon: The Professional, and, wouldn't you know it, Oldman shows up here as the gun-toting Floyd Banner. I liked Oldman's villain more than Pearce's, but, like Hardy taking a back seat to LaBeouf, Oldman's baddie gets less attention.
Hardy is perhaps the film's best ingredient as the big brother who refuses to play ball with dirty lawmen—and won't die, no matter what they throw at him. Hardy's performance in The Dark Knight Rises as Bane left me underwhelmed, but that wasn't really his fault. (I blame the sound man!) Here, without a mask, he is allowed to act his ass off. He does so quite nicely.
The movie also features a couple of high-profile actresses, but their roles don't contribute much to the story. Jessica Chastain plays Maggie, the girl with the mysterious background who takes a job waiting tables and fancies Forrest. I love Chastain in almost anything she does, but she is given nothing memorable to do here, unless you count a more-than-surprising nude scene. I repeat ... Jessica Chastain is partially nude in this movie!
Mia Wasikowska fares a little better as Jack's love interest, a religious man's daughter who likes the bad boys. There's a lift to her performance that has been missing from some of her other recent roles, most notably her droll turn in Alice in Wonderland.
Meanwhile, LaBeouf just doesn't fit in. He's got a drawl that sounds like he watched too many Larry the Cable Guy movies before the cameras started rolling, and his big dramatic moments feel far from effortless. He has enough decent minutes to warrant a supporting performance, but not enough to make him the movie's focus. He doesn't have the chops of a Hardy or Oldman, who easily overpower him in their moments together.
Much credit goes to the art department on Lawless for doing a nice job of re-creating a Depression-era city. Of course, I wasn't alive during these times, but I can tell you that the wooden town created here is often fun to look at, and well-shot by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (who also shot Hillcoat's The Proposition). The period cars, signs and backdrops all contribute to a world that seems authentic.
Too bad that authentic world isn't filled with more-consistent characters. Cave's screenplay, based on the novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant (which is based on the life of his grandfather and great-uncles), offers nothing new. Anybody who has seen HBO's Boardwalk Empire has seen a better staging of Prohibition-era crime wars.
Lawless is nowhere close to making my year's-worst list. But it will rank high on my list of greatest disappointments.