Film Review: Lawless

Seeing Tom Hardy crack someone with brass knuckles is a thing of brutal beauty. Sure, we may be getting used to him doing that kind of thing by now (after all, we’ve seen him as the sadistic Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, cage fighting machine Tommy Conlon in Warrior and the crazy Charles Bronson in, erm, Bronson over the past few years), but when someone’s good at something, it’s often best to just let them get on with it.

The Bondurant brothers

In Lawless, Hardy plays Forrest Bondurant who along with his two brothers Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LeBeouf) are successful alcohol bootleggers, producing moonshine during the Prohibition era. Forrest is the bumbling hard man who is in charge of operations, whilst Howard likes to sample the moonshine a little too much. Jack is the runt of Bondurant litter and is in the constant shadow of his older brothers.

All is well in the bootlegging world until Special Detective Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is employed with shutting them down and will go to extreme lengths to ensure he does so. However, Forrest and his brothers aren’t keen on going quietly. The film is based on a true story and adapted from Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World.

One of the most striking things about Lawless is how violent it is. There are throats slit, necks broken and skulls caved in, and there are times when it can feel a little unnecessary and over the top. Indeed, at times the violence threatens to define the film, especially considering the somewhat flimsy plot.

Hardy & LeBeoufThere’s enough to keep the story going but there’s little else going on aside from the usual good guys vs bad guys story arc. However, it’s interesting working out who the good and the bad guys actually are. The Bondurant brothers are the ones breaking the law, yet it’s they who we root for, not the authorities trying to uphold the law.

The actual issue of bootlegging is nothing more than a MacGuffin; the real focus of the film is the relationship between the brothers and their struggle to adapt to changes in the law and technology. Due to this, it very much feels like it should be a character driven film, but with little exposition and character development (aside from perhaps Jack), it falls short on this front also.

There’s some confusion as to who the film wants to make its real protagonist. It’s narrated by Jack, but for large portions of the film the focus is firmly on Forest. It shifts between the two throughout, whilst Howard remains nothing more than a secondary character. And talking of secondary characters, there is criminal under use of the film’s leading ladies. Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska) is the daughter of a local preacher and becomes Jack’s love interest in the film, whilst Forrest’s attentions are turned by city girl Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). Again, Howard doesn’t get a look in.

Both of these characters feel a little like an after thought, as if the filmmakers realised they hadn’t actually included any women in the script and so wedged them in where they could, which is a shame because they do add another dimension to the film and the actresses’ performances are excellent. Gary Oldman is also reduced to little more than a cameo; again, his character, mobster Floyd Banner, could easily have had a little more screen time. In fact, there are so many interesting characters that Lawless could well have been a mini-series, offering more time with each, although Boardwalk Empire has pretty much got that period sewn up right now.

Special Detectice Charlie RakesAlthough this review has been quite damning, there is a lot that Lawless gets right. It’s not just Wasikowska and Chastain who provide top notch performances; the acting is superb across the board. Hardy once again proves he’s much more than just muscle, and even Shia Lebeouf proves he’s got some talent there after all. With Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac on the horizon, LeBeouf is clearly trying to move away from the Hollywood blockbusters that have earned him a somewhat tarnished reputation. Dane DeHaan also gives an entertaining performance as the brainy but rickets-riddled Cricket who help the brothers with their operation.

It’s arguably Guy Pearce’s Detective Rakes who’s the star of the show, however. His creepy, eyebrow-less visual is enhanced further by his equally creepy demeanour and willingness to go to any lengths to stop the three brothers. Pearce is superb as Rakes, giving the role the attitude and uneasiness it requires.

The film also looks absolutely fantastic. Director John Hillcoat has created a totally believable snapshot of the Prohibition era; the costumes, locales and cinematography all help create an incredibly rich mise-en-scène and a world you want to invest your time in. There’s also an excellent original soundtrack, but with Nick Cave behind the script (and some of the tracks), the music was always going to have elevated importance.

Whilst Lawless doesn’t quite reach the epic heights it clearly aspires for, it’s still an excellent watch with great performances and an interesting, if sometimes one-dimensional, narrative. It could, and perhaps should, have done a little more with the subject matter and the characters, but what it has done is immensely enjoyable and a worthy addition to all of the actors’ filmographies.

Words: Chris Thomson

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10 thoughts on “Film Review: Lawless

  1. Mark Walker says:

    Nice review man. Well done for squeezing that “McGuffin” in there. 😉

  2. You make a lot of good points, Chris. I especially agree with the fact that the Chastain and Mia W characters feel like after thoughts. I’m sure they were in the book, cause it was biographical/historical, but still…

    Nonetheless, it was entertaining on the whole!

    • Yeah without reading the book I’m not sure how much the film differs, but some of the film’s problems could well stem from the text. Nick Cave said that the book was very violent and he tried to capture that; I guess in that respect he succeeded. My review is much harsher than I intended it to be honest, I really did quite enjoy it.

  3. For me Mia W and J. Chastain are (and should be) afterthoughts. I think they are primarily just use to show the depth of their emotions (amidst all the violence and brutality); when you have something (or someone) to care for and protect, it makes for more sympathetic characters. It’s not about them; and I think its better that way. Some characters are designed to be on the backburner and hold up the others. Now the issue of whether their talents are wasted in taking roles like that is another discussion all together.

    I think I liked this film way more than you did. I didn’t think it had a flimsy plot at all; it my not have been epic but I thought it was beautifully crafted. Yes, we root from the bootleggers but the authorities aren’t without fault. The story does a good job of showing the dual nature both sides, and we learn that the bootleggers aren’t really the baddest of the bad guys.

    I sure do agree with you on the performances though, especially on you pointing out Guy Pearce. They were very very good group of actors.

    • Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy it, I just felt it had its flaws. I agree that both actresses shouldn’t have as strong a role as the brothers but I didn’t feel they had really developed enough of a relationship to make me feel like there was something worth caring for or protecting.
      I feel they could have told more of a story. There was more to tell from the girls’ point of view, the Gary Oldman story had more to give and we didn’t really know much about most of the characters at all. Despite that, there was still plenty to enjoy and the criticisms I made are not game breakers, just where I feel it’s not as strong as I feel it could have been.

  4. You seem to agree with many critics and bloggers when you say that it’s good enough but could and should have been better. Still, I am DYING to see this one. Hope I’ll be able to do that soon.

  5. Was really disappointed in this film. Great review though.

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