Congratulations, “Lawless,” you did the impossible. You made me prefer a Shia LaBeouf performance over a Tom Hardy performance. How did it ever come to this?
“Lawless” tells the story of the Bondurant boys, Jack (LaBeouf), Forrest (Hard) and Howard (Jason Clarke), a real-life trio from Franklin County, Va. who more or less own the regional bootlegging business. They sell their moonshine to pretty much everyone who will pay, and that includes everyone from farmers’ wives to the local sheriff and his deputies.
Their unfettered freewheeling doesn’t last long, though, with the arrival of Charlie Rakes (Pearce). Rakes, a weaselly, sneering, foppish (yet no less brutal) special agent with the district attorney’s office, saunters into town and demands a cut from the profits of every bootlegger in the county. Everyone pays up. Everyone except the Bondurants, of course. Forrest refuses to give up one red cent, all but declaring war against Rakes.
After Forrest survives a harrowing attack by Rakes’ hired thugs (he somehow manages to recover from a slashed throat), Jack decides to take some initiative and sells their entire stock of alcohol to Floyd Banner (Oldma), a Chicago gangster. Banner and Jack then strike a deal for Banner to become one of their main clients. The deal brings Jack massive profits, but it only puts Rakes hotter on his tail and with deadly results.
The fundamentals of the story are about as solid as any other period gangster piece which is why it was so surprising when about halfway through I found myself losing all interesting in just about anyone and everything on-screen. This might be one of the most undercooked, underwritten movies I’ve seen all year.
There’s just so little to grasp onto. Hillcoat attempts to frame Forrest as a the stoic tough guy, but Hardy’s performance is so flat and lethargic it feels like Forrest is sleepwalking through half his scenes. This might have been lessened had Nick Cave’s script not drastically underwritten this character. There’s just so little there.
Howard might as well not even be in the movie his character has such a non-presence in the script.
What exacerbates all of this is the fact that Hillcoat tries to get us to believe that this is a tight-knit family, that this ragtag trio of knockabouts has something special. The reality is that there’s no chemistry at all between these guys, nothing that says they’re related other than the fact that they happen to co-exist on the screen.
Maybe I shouldn’t be quite so surprised. Hillcoat’s first film, “The Proposition” was a relentlessly intense film that was compelling and engaging despite being almost irredeemably grim and oppressive. “The Road” was his follow-up, and while that translated Cormac McCarthy’s grim and oppressive (I’m sensing a trend here…) novel quite well it was a fairly thin affair. “Lawless” makes it begin to seem like “The Proposition” was something of a fluke.
The problem is that it doesn’t come across as an inept or incompetently made film, just one that lacks a fire. The film is airless, without a sense of urgency or importance to nearly everything that transpires. Stuff happens, but we’re never really compelled to care very much about it. When you start wishing the film centered entirely on its villains, there is a problem.
It’s not the villains’ fault (or their actors’, for that matter). It just so happens that they’re played by two of the best actors currently working. Oldman you can tell is having a lot of fun chewing his gangster dialect and it’s a crying shame there’s so little of him in this. It’s Guy Peace, though, who steals the show.
It’s impressive, partly because Rakes comes close to becoming something of a cartoon given his affectations and the way Pearce plasters that perpetual sneer on his face, but it manages never to dip into that territory. If there is a singular reason to watch this otherwise lackluster film, it’s Pearce.
I’m not sure I can bring myself to call “Lawless” one of the worst movies of the year, but it’s certainly one of the most airless, least compelling films I’ve seen all year.